So with a few weeks to myself in Bariloche, I decide how dreamy it would be to build an A-Frame house with a writing tower, 360 degree windows, on the lake, cozy fireplace with an alpaca rug on the wood floors. I sketch it and imagine myself inspired, writing there, taking breaks to kayak or ski, depending on the season. Maybe after I write a best seller…
Until this dream can be realized I decide I can still head to a mountain hut to do some writing. I plan a 4 day trek, staying at two refugios (simple mountain huts where you can pay a fee for a mattress and use of the kitchen). The first day goes well, but reminds me that I’ve been away from mountains for a few months now. The hike is easy, but a steep walk up Cerro Lopez for a few hours with panoramic views across this massive, mountain-lined, deep blue lake. Parque Nahuel Huapi, one of my favorite places. I have time to read and write and talk to the couple who run the hut and their curious son. A simple life preparing meals, running up and down the trail with supplies, talking with the different guests who pass through, drinking lots of mate of course. There was a huge group of about 50 pre-teens that must’ve been about 10-12 years old. I was rather surprised to watch as they were served the highly caffeinated mate as well at about 9pm. Start em young I guess! I thought they’d keep me up all night, but can only guess that they were packed so tightly into their room that they couldn’t possibly even talk. This isn’t that big of a hut.
I knew the next day would be challenging. Within minutes of starting the trail, I was using all fours trying to keep my balance with my heavy pack on my back, my short legs fully extended in a reach to hoist myself up and over boulders, a trail hardly visible. So hardly visible in fact, that I lose the trail. I know from other hiking that I have done here before that sometimes the “trail” is across, up, or down a scree field and not entirely clear, so I follow what I think is the trail. I hike across a stretch of loose rocks, across snow, up to a ridge. At this point, I see a gorgeous, still, turquoise lake that looks as if it has been painted on the earth. Gorgeous and yet there isn’t supposed to be a lake there. I’ve gone the wrong way. I’m trying to get my bearings with the map, thinking to myself, “Where am I supposed to go?” Just then, one lone condor comes up over the peak, flies passed me over to where I am supposed to be, loops back around to fly directly over my head and away into the distance. I think, hmm, that was interesting timing and strange. I study the map again and realize that it flew exactly where I needed to be. Great news! I also realize that I am now about 3 hours out of my way by the time I get back to where I should’ve gone. Bad News.
It was still early in the day and the middle of the summer with a 10:00pm sunset, so I went for it. This was a crazy tough hike. I ended up with bruised hands from how much I was lowering myself down, pulling myself up, slipping here and there on everything from loose gravel to chunky scree fields to having to use ropes to rappel down large boulders. Remember doing the crab walk as a kid? When you’re on all fours, butt towards the ground? That is what it was like to get down these peaks, to stay balanced with a pack on. I enjoyed the challenge immensely, but to enjoy the nature I had to stop and take it in. Every step I took required complete focus on that step and nothing else. I spent much of the time mentally encouraging myself while also reprimanding myself for going alone. I know you are not supposed to, and while I did see other people along the way and knew I would be ok, I had no desire to become another movie plot line, having to cut my leg off and crawl out or something. (In the photo below I had come from the other side of the pass behind me and then across the valley up to where I am in the photo)
After 10 hours of hiking crossing two passes, hiking through a pretty valley, across several ridges with views of Cerro Tronador in the distance, I made it to the next refugio on an elevated mountain laguna. Laguna Negra. I spent two nights and days reading and writing and dreaming about my future Patagonian A-Frame cabin.
The rest of my time in Bariloche was overcast, crazy windy, and chilly. This actually ended up being a good thing in terms of hunkering down with my journal and toying around with the guitar that I’ve been wanting and finally, finally bought! I befriended a French/Swiss guy, Igor and we’d have lingering breakfasts enjoying the view out over the lake from our 10th floor hostel. A good friend of mine had just been guiding kayak trips in Antarctica and our paths were able to cross for a few days to do some day hikes and share meals with other travelers. So good for the soul. It was definitely the right choice to spend this time in Bariloche.
I spent much of last year trying to think my way through things and figure them out, and not enough time paying attention to the feel of things and going with the flow. I’m trying to act on that learning this year. Such was it that when coming back to Argentina, I had a decision to make about where to go for 3 weeks until my visitors arrived. It was the only 3 weeks of alone time I would get between mid-November and early March, so it felt important. The obvious was to go back to Mendoza where I have been living. It was over 100 degrees there and I was craving to be more directly in nature and so I headed back to Bariloche in Patagonia instead.
On my 21 hour bus ride, I ended up sharing mate and talking in Spanish for hours to the very sweet Argentine, Lucho, who was next to me and on his way to Bariloche for holidays, to meet up with his best friends. I ended up spending the next several days with the three of them. They would pick me up at my hostel and tell me where we were going for the day. This was the best Spanish practice I have had, along with local immersion with these extremely creative, genuine, affectionate, generous people.
This was the best welcome back ever as it reminded me of the things that I have really fallen in love with here in Argentina. I have met so many very kind and welcoming people, and once again I love all the kisses when greeting each other and again when saying goodbye. Life these few days was filled with everything tranquilo, chilled out, and very much going with the flow. We spent a day lakeside that felt like it would never end, which was fine with me. A picnic and mate, card games, snorkeling. Sebastian made some cool, impromptu arte en vivo, while the rest of us took a siesta. Lucho set some rocks out on a sunken log and it became a game of trying to knock them off by skipping rocks…simple, creative fun When the sun was low enough in the sky and the shade was cool, we packed up to leave.
We came to another beach that was still sunny and unpacked everything to chill out longer. Juggling, head stands, photography, more mate. This sounds so simple, but I remember feeling so clearly that we wouldn’t do that in the States. When it’s time to go, it is time to go and we’d probably be thinking about how late it is getting and our plans for a bbq or just the rushed, anxiety feeling of “we’ve been here all day, time to move on.” That may be a generalization, but it struck me how much this day felt like a quintessential example of living in the present moment. Nothing was discussed, we just stepped into the sun and it became obvious that we’d stay and bask in it.
When we did leave, we made another spontaneous stop at a mirador (lookout point) because it was there and why not? This all meant that we ended up going out to dinner instead of having our asado, and we didn’t eat until midnight, but who cares. It was lovely and so effortless. We would have an asado another day. And we did. And it was wonderful.
If you find yourself in Mendoza and hear the words ‘la finca’ mentioned in what sounds like an invitation, immediately say “Yes!” or beg your way into an invitation. This is how I found myself taking buses and doing a little hitch hiking with my dear Canadian friend, la artista Carmen and our amigos argentinos, Jorge y Mariel on a glorious Mendocino Sunday. La finca technically means, the farm. In Mendoza this can often be used to refer to ‘wine farms’, read: vineyards. But it also pretty much guarantees a trip out of the city closer to nature, a cultural experience and a mountain backdrop to top it off. I didn’t know what I was getting into, only that la finca was involved and I was to meet my friends at the bus station at 9:00am.
I was still waking up as I made the mistake of buying coffee from one of the little carts in the bus station. Think of it more as sugar water with a hint of instant coffee flavoring. Yikes. My wake up call would have to wait. Luckily our first stop was Mariel’s family house. We were dropped off by the bus in the middle of a road and within 5 minutes managed to hitch a ride with a friendly local. A day of Argentino traditions started. First, it was kisses all around. Mother, father, and then brother after brother appeared from no where to give each of us a kiss on the cheek, just one in Argentina. We shared maté, which is a loose leaf tea that you drink from a gourd through a straw. There is a lengthy tradition around this custom, but basically it involves one person pouring hot water into the tea filled gourd and passing it around. When it is your turn, without touching the straw, you drink all of the tea and pass it back to the pourer who will refill it and continue with the next person. On any given morning, afternoon, evening with a stroll through a neighborhood, plaza, or park you can see many a group of friends or family ‘taking the maté’ together. It is thought to be quite energizing as well, so we shared some maté and woke up to the day.
From here it was a walk through the neighborhood to catch another bus. But not before a round of goodbye kisses and a run in with the neighbors who we exchanged kisses with, talked to for about 3 1/2 minutes, and then exchanged kisses all around again before taking our leave. Carmen and I looked at each other as if we thought our first round of kisses was sufficient to last at least 5 minutes, but quickly realized by the look on grandma’s face and her extended arm that we were meant to kiss hello and goodbye with even a 10 second conversation. I love this tradition. It seems so strange to me to hold out my hand for a handshake now.
Our next bus took us to another neighborhood where we walked to a friend’s house for another round of kisses and maté. We then piled into their car and headed to la finca where there would be a birthday celebration. If I only celebrate my birthdays in this Argentine fashion from now on, I won’t remotely mind raking in the years. It turns out la finca that we were visiting is owned by two brothers and one of them was turning 60. There was a vineyard/mountain backdrop just as I had imagined when I begged for my invitation. The brothers themselves had an orchard of peaches and cherries and they grow other produce as well. They host ‘woofers’, which is short for those who are traveling around by working on organic farms in exchange for room and board. There were roughly 60 people there of all ages and countries who, you guessed it!, each came over to give us kisses and welcome us to the party.
Now it was time for perhaps the greatest of all Argentinian traditions though. As people played chess, ping pong, bocce ball, futbol or wandered the vineyard, several caballeros (gentlemen) were hard at work tending to the coals of la parilla…the grill of course. Some things are universal! Everyone had brought different cuts of meat and wine and there were also empanadas and vegetables roasting in the dome clay oven. When it was time, all 60+ of us sat around tables that had been lined up into one great table in the shade. And then the food and meat just started coming and coming and coming. In the end, it is tough to say if there was more meat or kisses on this Sunday Funday. We shared many toasts, “salud!” and sang happy birthday and I’m not sure if there has ever been a more content birthday man in history. In my own opinion, sharing a meal like this must be one of the simplest and greatest things you can do in this world. One thing that struck me was how easy it all came together and how everyone was a part of everything. There was this massive meal and not a stress in the world.
Serendipity stepped in to give me yet another highlight to the day. I spent hours talking to Rudolfo, one of the brothers who owned the place. It turns out he is a published author and has written many books. He was thrilled to learn that I had stopped in Mendoza to write a book. We shared writing styles and process and creative inspiration and stories and laughed about how you need to be just a little bit crazy to be an author. He told me to treat writing a book like a fine wine, and I understood why this is the place that I have stopped to write. It turns out that he and his brother had built this place to be somewhere for gathering people in creativity, nature, and company…an amazing display of a vision en vivo. This all took place in Spanish and it was thrilling to understand everything he said and to be able to have what I call a “soul conversation” in another language. We have an open invitation to come out to la finca and definite friends for life as cliche as that might sound.
And if this wasn’t enough, day moved into night as the reggae band set up to play alongside the table where people continued to feast. The birthday “boy” himself got up to play the guitar (…what I would consider to be another tradition here. There always seems to be a guitar around and someone who knows how to play it.) A storm moved in and Carmen and I snuck away to capture some photos of the lightening striking down in a grand finale.
This is the sort of cultural experience that I dream of and hope everyone gets a chance to have. I do think it comes from just doing what you love and talking about what you love every chance you get. Connections are formed, invitations are offered, and it all comes together just as it should.
It was tempting to keep traveling north and explore more of Peru, but I had a feeling pulling me south back to Argentina. It occurred to me that although the adventures I have had this year have blown my mind, the feeling was fleeting. It was fleeting because I hadn’t yet created the life to support being able to do this sort of long term travel/ wandering. The goal was never just to travel, although wow…how amazing that has been. The goal was and is to create a new life entirely around my essence, passions, and values. With exploring other cultures being one of my great passions, it made sense to start this journey by traveling. Really simple actually: I love this, so I’m going to do more of this and see what happens. (click links to read my article and other blog that talk about these things a bit more)
I knew that doing this alone was important too, but wasn’t exactly sure why. What I’ve learned is that traveling alone has really let me leave a lot behind; job, commitments, familiar crutches and time suckers. What has come with me are fears, habits, and who I am as a person, how I process things and make decisions, what I feel. So traveling solita exposes me to unknowns and I learn to listen to myself, process things myself and really to just be myself in the truest sense. Sometimes it is lonely and sometimes it is such a gift and opens up all sorts of opportunities.
So with my goal in mind and embracing this unique opportunity of the ultimate alone time, the travel aspect started to feel like it was fleeting. I felt like it was time to settle for a bit and focus on writing, reflecting on what I’ve learned and to decide what is next for me in this journey. Mendoza had always been in my mind as a great city for living and I traveled for a week by land to make my way back to the land of Malbec.
I took a pit stop in San Pedro de Atacama, a very picturesque desert in Northern Chile with many a volcano gracing the horizon. The vast emptiness of the landscape resonated with the emotions that I was feeling…I thought it had been scary traveling alone at times, but as soon as I headed south to “officially” start living my new life, every fear and doubt bubbled into my chest. I felt so anxious, I missed seeing new landscapes even before I arrived in Mendoza. I took these thoughts by bike out to a laguna for the day. That night I met a writer, a girl starting a fair trade business with her sister and a guy who is creating a documentary on healing in the Amazon…sooo, basically my life. Point for synchronicity!
When the bus came into Mendoza I remembered what an oasis it is, the green tree canopies shading every street in this dry desert town. I walked through the familiar streets and welcomed this city as my new home as I passed flower stands calming my fears with thoughts of buying a fresh bouquet to make my apartment my own. It is spring here now and the whole city smells like a flower. It’s incredible.
Now all I have to do is find an apartment. Who knew what a cultural experience this could be? For weeks I told anybody and everybody that I was looking for an apartment. The usual response was something along the lines of “ok great, I’ll let people know.” “Thank you, but can’t you just tell me a website I can go to? I want to find a place this week.” Now that I’ve been through the experience I can see why people laughed when I said this. A lot of people live at home until they are married, even into their thirties. People tend to stay in places for a long time with a typical lease being 2 years and requiring someone to vouch for you. There are websites as it turns out, but most things happen by word of mouth.
So I started trying to do things to meet people and put myself out there. I started going to a language exchange group to practice Spanish and share English. I met with the Vines of Mendoza, a company through which you can buy a vineyard and make your very own Mendocino wines. (I’m allowed a shameless plug in my own blog, no? I’m now writing for The Vines blog about the wine experience and culture of Mendoza). I met up with friends that I made at the hostel while I was here in April and May. After a week on buses and the most intense neck cramp, I treated myself to a massage and a local woman at the spa offered me a room in her home, although she didn’t have water or electricity somehow. So all of this helped me get acquainted and involved in Mendoza as a home and eventually I did find a place for a month and immdiately bought some flowers. Oh the luxury of my own space!!!
At first I was so excited, all I did was stay in and write and cook and watch movies in Spanish to keep practicing. I found that being in nature isn’t just a hobby or occasionally fun, but something that is critical to my happiness. So I took a weekend trip to Uspallata, a mountain town where I was able to watch the sun set over a river and the full moon rise with my new Mendocina friend who had gone horseback riding and hiking with me that day.
Part of me felt intimidated and tired of always going out on my own and always trying to meet people. And yet, when I stayed holed up in my apartment in the city I missed interactions and the impromtu invite or conversation. So I said yes to an invitation to go to a wine tasting event for the day. And I sought out events in Mendoza and was able to find a polo tournament and talk some friends into going who brought more friends and suddenly we had the most wonderful day in the sun, tasting champagne and watching the horses and riders compete against a gorgeous mountain backdrop.
Stay tuned for more stories of my life here (there are many now) and also for my book. I finally started writing it and as you can imagine, am feeling quite inspired by the adventures I’ve had this year.
Since the bike trip, I’ve spent the last few weeks in a couple of cities and a wine town. Salta La Linda is a beautiful city in the north. It has an amazing central plaza, that amazing Argentine cafe culture that I love, and several cathedrals that resemble wedding cakes to me. There is a museum that displays high quality Incan ceremonial items along with three mummified children who were discovered as sacrifices on a nearby mountain. It was very sobering to learn about this culture and temper judgment in light of respect for their deep beliefs, but also for life itself. Salta was especially lovely for me because of the company I kept. I met some guys at the hostel who took me under their wing as a Spanish student and also shared with me a night out clubbing, a Sunday asado, and a climb up Cerro San Bernardo. The best news though was that my good friend Pablo who lives in Denver, but is originally from Argentina, was down here for work. It was incredible to see a familiar face and hang out for a few days.
Cafayate is the wine gem of the north, known for Torrontes the white equivalent of Malbec for Argentina. I can’t imagine how beautiful it is in the summer and fall with full vines against the beautiful mountain back drop. As always, I enjoyed tasting wines, but also entertained myself with seeing some cave paintings thought to be a thousand years old, and spending the day cycling through the nearby gorge that has outstanding red rock formations and endless views. Call it an addiction, but biking is such a beautiful way to see things and I love it!
I then arrived in Córdoba, the second largest city in the country, closer to the middle…kind of between Buenos Aires and Mendoza. At first glance it was overwhelming to me, so I went for runs in the park and wandered around until I found its charms. This city has a strong Jesuit influence, which is seen in the many cathedrals and beautiful architecture lurking on the bustling city streets. I also found this wonderful district of antique shops and cafes tucked down alleys off the street that are super cool and atmospheric. It’s a university town and you can feel the young, hip vibe everywhere. There are many places to visit nearby in the hills as well, including a town that many people believe is an epicenter for UFO visits and spiritual energy and a canyon where condors are known to teach their young to fly.
It has been wonderful to be back in Argentina, and I am sure I will love returning to it again, just as soon as I get back from the Peruvian Amazon where I am now headed for the next 33 days! I will be deep in the rain forest living in a permaculture environment with regular yoga, meditation, rituals with indigenous shamans, among other things. I’m wildly excited for this opportunity. Stay tuned!
Time for some more cultural musings that I’ve noticed since I’ve been back in Argentina:
Having correct change is a complete rarity. I was told the other day that businesses actually have to pay to buy coins because people melt them and make them into jewelry that they can get more money for than the coins are worth themselves. It is not uncommon for a shop to not have change to give you and to offer you some candy instead. “No, I don’t want candy, I just want my change….oh, that is the change.”
Traffic: The only thing clear about who has the right of way in Argentina is that it is not you, Miss Pedestrian. When you come to an intersection, it seems that whoever feels they have the right of way, does. One direction of traffic will go for a while, until the other side seems to get antsy and edge their way out. Just when you think you’re about to witness an accident, the flow switches for a while….making street crossing a sport for us pedestrians.
I have a ‘mercado central’ addiction. Especially since I hit Mendoza and north, every city and town seems to have a mercado central. It’s typically tucked away inside a city block like a gem in the core of a mountain. The entrance may look like another store entrance, until you go in to explore and you find that the entire heart and guts of the block is this hidden market with everything from fruits and veggies and meat and spices to handicrafts and electronics, movies and socks.
The best gifts are the cheesiest ones. I was being helped in a store while talking about how I love Mendoza and think I may move there. It turns out the guy is a Mendocino and was so excited. He told me to hang on and in a few minutes returned with a freshly made key chain gift; a wood cutout of Argentina with some plastic grapes glued to it and signed ‘Mendoza’. To use my dear friend Christen’s words, there’s just this special way down here where people get very excited about sharing a passion or something simple in common and wanting to celebrate it. I hope to bring this sort of sentiment with me when I return to the States.
You can learn a great deal about Argentina history from the names of the streets and plazas. Every town has streets and plazas named after dates, generals and other important historical figures. They love their generals here! My personal favorite is Perito Moreno, a guy who supposedly changed the direction of a river so that it flowed to the Atlantic instead of the Pacific, which conveniently makes it belong to Argentina instead of Chile…the border of these two countries being determined by the continental divide.
One night I had a group of 11 Argentinos at the hostel helping me with Spanish. As I was sharing that I love how they always say ‘Buen Provecho’ to each other under all eating circumstances, they start elbowing me and laughing until I realize that a couple of guys had walked in with late night food and I should actually participate in this custom that I love. “Buen provecho chicos!”
In other language lesson news, in the last couple of weeks I have had a few guys trying to practice their English with me. They have pointed behind them to indicate the past as I had done my first few months here. It made me immensely happy to let them know I understood what they meant and did not think they had imaginary friends.
I’m back in Argentina, although I’d hardly know it. I came to a very different Argentina this time. I landed in Buenos Aires after two days of travel from Honduras and three airports. I breezed through immigration, quickly caught the shuttle into town, rushed to Florida Street with my backpack in tow to change dollars (yes, on the street, more on that later), and did my best impersonation of a run, which was perhaps more like a fast, unattractive waddle to the bus station. I jumped aboard a 26 hour bus ride to Jujuy in the north with 10 minutes to spare, and felt quite proud that all of this had been possible so quickly because I had become familiar with Buenos Aires and my Spanish is getting better.
“They say” you can tell a lot about a person by the company he/she keeps. My most consistent company this year has been “The Great Dane”, Henrik. If what “they say” is true, you’ll find me to be a curious person, passionate about experiences, interactions, learning and photography to capture it all. It’s worked out quite well that his patient, challenging and beautiful pace of travel by bike has matched my style of lingering and soaking in the places I visit. So for one last time in Argentina, I was able to meet up with my friend and share some more adventures.
Jujuy is a city, and is probably often skipped by travelers as it doesn’t have any shining star attractions per se. I really liked it though; I see that as a great opportunity to just wander and notice little things and witness life en vivo. While I didn’t remotely blend, it was fascinating to be the only two gringos in town for a couple of days. There’s a pretty cathedral and we had a wonderful experience pulling up some stools at a street food stand in the market to try some comidas regionales. We had tamales y humitas (like a tamale, a tad more sweet, more likely to be filled with cheese perhaps), and locro (a stew of maíz, beans, pork, beef, sausage).
I woke up on my birthday to the sounds of a parade. Looking out the window onto the street below it was more of a procession for a saint: some brass instruments, a flowered shrine and a couple dozen people following along. This turned into a regular occasion my last couple of weeks in the north…interesting.
A few of my friends had given me cards 6 months ago to open on my birthday. I thought it was the sweetest thing then, but to sit there in the morning and hear from them was truly amazing. I hope I’m a reflection of this company that I keep as well because these women constantly blow my mind. Thank you Katie Mason, Lindsay Vogt, and Susan Lambert!!!
I love to spend my birthday in nature, followed by some live music and awesome company, with my Mom traditionally telling me the story of my birth…it’s fun to see how that works out and this year did not fail me. I walked around the tiny, dusty streets of the little gem called Purmamarca. I had lunch, with wine of course, and the company of a very photogenic 5 year old and his kitten. I walked around the cerro de siete colores…the trail was full of green mountains, orange ones, purple ones, peppered with the towering cordones cacti. I stopped at an artists’ workshop and told him it was my birthday. He was more excited than I was! He poured some maté for us (a prolific Argentine cultural experience that I will write about at some point)…basically it’s a type of tea drank from a gourd and is shared. We watched the llamas against the backdrop of gorgeous alpenglow and he showed me a black and white photo of his Mom in New York in the 40s. Bliss!! Henrik then arrived en bici and we went to dinner, eating llama, drinking local wines and listening to folklore music. So far so good, for 33!
The next day took us to Tilcara, where I decided it was time again to rent a bike and join my cycling friend for a much longer and more rigorous “cycle-tour” this time. I cycled with him to the Bolivia border, which I believe was about ~225km of cycling at about 12,000+ft of altitude, gaining 700m of altitude on one day alone. I like to think of myself as a fit person and that’s important to me, but I hadn’t been training for this and had just come from sea level (or below sea level with all of the diving!). We were quite unlucky with facing headwinds, side winds…actually I named our ride “Anything but tailwinds”. As is often the case with something you hear about, but haven’t tried…I never realized the implications of how much impact the wind has on this kind of travel.
One day in particular, I could not even look up at the horizon and surrounding landscape, my bike was almost toppled over twice from wind force, and I think I may have been growling out loud in a physical fight with the wind. I started picking trees on the horizon and just trying to make it to those trees. And to be perfectly honest, my butt really hurt! One night we didn’t make it to the town we were aiming for and the town we did reach was somewhat of an abandoned mine town with no where to stay. We ended up paying some guys to bring us mattresses and blankets to use in a dusty, old, concrete room in an abandoned train station. Remember it is winter here right now and temperatures are freezing at night. What an experience!
This trip was so many things for me: First of all, I was proud. It was extremely difficult, but I like a physical challenge and I did it. It was a beautiful pace to see the world and a new way to be with nature. I love trying new things and learning and processing my experience (still doing that). It was a lot of time to think. I thought about everything from my heart bursting from gratitude or bursting from the challenge of the ride, thought about my parents celebrating their 38 wedding anniversary and what makes a soul mate or true love, I tried to think in Spanish to continue my practice and unfortunately I also spent more time than I cared to thinking about the wind. I talked to the wind, sometimes arguing, sometimes begging, sometimes trying to see a lesson. I talked to my body…yes out loud even. I thought about my intentions for the year that I set in a rose garden in Buenos Aires and how they are playing out and what my next move is. Lately, I’ve been thinking so much about the friends in my life and family at home and just exactly what each and every one of them have given to me and why I specifically miss them and how much I love them. If that sounds cheesy or cliché, I’ll accept that. It’s truly how I feel.
We started in a canyon and moved to high altitude plains. We passed llamas, the endangered vicuña, sand dunes and spectacular mountains of all sorts of colors. We stayed in tiny adobe towns, rich with bright colored handicrafts, the popular ponchos (not to be confused with panchos which means hot dogs 🙂 ), and hats that kind of look like top hats on both the men and women. Their faces had changed dramatically from southern Argentina as well, and were rounder and darker and looked more indigenous and Bolivian in nature.
In Humahuaca, we hiked up to the monument and took pictures of the mighty cordones at night, enjoyed local cuisine of queso de cabra and quinoa, and went to see the most magnificent pink, zigzag mountains that to me resemble rhodochrosite (the country stone of Argentina and the state stone of Colorado). We spent an amazing day in the remote town of Iruya, which we actually bused to. You shouldn’t go if you have a fear of heights and winding mountain roads. The town is made of steep, cobbled streets where donkeys roam freely, kids carry baby goats around and the people prefer not to be photographed.
We hiked up to a lookout where we watched swooping condors and the mountains that rippled with green, blue, orange, and purple. We met a couple that we joined for coffee and an impromtu Spanish lesson, and then finished the evening with a película (movie) at the cultural center, learning about the region’s history in Spanish. In Abra Pampa, we spent hours playing the Gran Bingo in the central plaza with what seemed to be the entire town sitting in silence, hoping for their numbers to be called. We lost, but it was a great experience and people seemed to find it fun that we were playing and wanted to help us too. We made it to La Quiaca, which seemed to be a crumbling, abandoned town that was mainly a border crossing and from there went to the very remote and tiny town of Yavi.
Challenging, absolutely, but I’m really happy that I decided to go after this adventure, and grateful for the patience of someone cycling around the world to let me have a sneak peak into his world. We’ve had a lot of adventures, deep conversations and laughs the last several months, and I wish Henrik the best on the next two years of travel around the rest of the world. As for me, I’m loving the things that I’m thrilled and challenged to be diving back into…Spanish and continuing my exploration of this awesome country.
Well, island time has gotten the best of me, and I am afraid it’s been a while since I last posted. I am still in Honduras, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Argentina these last few days and thought I’d share some more stories.
For me, I’ve found I really like a balance of “the finer things in life” and also “roughing it” a bit. I respect that often touristy sites and activities are touristy for a reason….there’s some really neat amazing stuff to see! That being said, I am not a huge fan of being a part of a big tour group or having a guide when I don’t need one. It can easily be as fun just wandering streets of a new town, and if you’re lucky, meeting some locals. I love “off the beaten track” activities, but even better are just the unique moments that can happen anywhere. So with this in mind, here are a few stories:
Mendoza certainly has the finer things in life to offer. I was lucky to be invited to a closed door restaurant…a trendy phenomenon where people have turned their houses into exclusive restaurants. There aren’t signs outside, menus, or anything official. You simply make a reservation and show up at the address, where you are promptly invited in to enjoy a glass of wine and begin your six course dinner at your leisure. Plug: If you visit me, we’ll go! We enjoyed a trip through regional fare paired with wines and had personal help selecting the red wine that we’d like with our main course. The passionate owner talked to us about food, wine, art, medicine, anything and everything and was a pleasure to be around.
In terms of roughing it…yes! I swear I have! Keep in mind I did say that I actually like roughing it, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to tell you that it hasn’t been all roses in the midst of my adventures. I rarely, if ever, have my own space. Sharing a room with 5 or more people and a bathroom and kitchen with even more is a bit too reminiscent of being a college freshman. I’ve had bed bugs twice, ew, that’s all I’ll say about that. Now in Honduras, I know I’m in the tropics so maybe it is inevitable, but I currently have cockroaches for roommates. Gross, huh? Did I mention they are my biggest fear ever? (In related news, please send donations to…just kidding) Staying in hostels has also really opened the door to meeting so many people and hearing their stories, which is one of my favorite things. Some of the best food I’ve had has been street food, usually accompanied with a side of local interaction. I love the pure color explosion of a fruit/veg stand, and the interactions and eye candy in the local markets. It’s also nice to know that you can lead a pretty rich life with pretty minimal things, so I’ve enjoyed the simplicity.
My favorite travel stories though, are the ones that are serendipitous. The hardest part is that you can crave them, but you can’t force them. Here’s my favorite…
I was missing the mountains but without a car and without many trails, it’s a bit challenging to get to the Andes outside of Mendoza. I did find a partner in crime, my Welsh but living in Australia friend, James. After an hour bus ride on a local bus, we were dropped off in the middle of a random dirt road. I turn to James to get a read on where we should go, as the bus driver is shrugging his shoulders at us in response to that very question. So we just started walking after taking a picture of our “bus stop” for future use.
We eventually found a sign with a location on it that we had thought was where the bus was dropping us. Yay! The sign indicated it was 12km further. Boo! At least we had direction now, but we immediately started trying to hitchhike. We soon picked up a dog who trotted along with us. I promise you the next car that drove by, our new friend skillfully herded to the side of the road where the couple had no choice, but to pick us up. We became more and more grateful as the car drove switchback after switchback up this steep hill.
We arrived at Refugio San Bernardo, a base camp for Aconcogua, the tallest peak outside of the Himalayas, and met Marco who lives there and manages it. We chatted a bit in Spanish and set off for a hike up to about 14,500 feet. We were often above the clouds and it was super cool and atmospheric. We picked up another dog friend, who hiked with us the entire way.
After a long day of hiking, we came back to the quiet refugio and huddled with Marco and the owners, a Franco/Argentino couple who had arrived, around the one coal they had going in the fire place. It was fun to practice some Spanish, which we were calmly doing when in bursts the entertainment for the evening. There was a man in a rugby shirt, Adrian, looking the part, Roberta his um…mistress maybe? we weren’t quite sure…in black leggings, towering heels, and a giant fur coat, and her 10 year old son. There was an instant flurry of conversation and activity as they made themselves at home…stoking the fire to prepare for the asado, making pizzas to go in the oven, pouring fernet and coke (an Argentina favorite) and wine.
I was feeling quite proud that I had chosen to go the Argentinian way and had brought myself a steak and veggies to grill. James had some pathetic pasta. I asked Adrian if he would grill my steak with the rest of the asado. “Claro que si!” of course! he responded. Still proud, I hand it to him, he opens the bag and looks at it, turns his nose up in the air, and says, “No.” and throws it in the garbage. I’m thinking, WHAT?! That was my dinner. My Argentinian dinner thank you very much! So much for impressing him. Roberta at the same time takes the boil-in-the-bag pasta package that James is trying to translate and says “No!” Who are these people?!
My Spanish is a bit further along than James’, and so quickly I realized that they had also done things the Argentinian way and brought food for 20 people when there were 3 of them. So they invited us to eat their pizza and asado, lest we eat the despicable things we had called food and hauled up the mountain. I’d have loved to have witnessed the grocery shopping for this trip….”Ok, so there’s 2 1/2 of us….we’ll need 4 pizzas, 8 steaks, what else? Is that enough?”
The rest of the night was just pure entertainment. They gave the 10 year old a glass of beer, which he promptly chugged. I think he was afraid they’d change their mind. We talked about everything under the sun, all in Spanish, over 7 or 8 rounds of meat. It was the most practice, the most fun, and the most confident I have felt with Spanish. I asked Adrian how he knew when the meat was ready because it was on the fire for quite some time and cooked perfectly rare. He looked at me like I had just asked whatever comes to your mind as the most obvious question in the world. Clearly he was born with this ability in his blood. “Sorry Adrian, can I have some more of your amazing steak? Que rico!” We covered everything in conversation from skiing to spirituality to fútbol. I was even able to make people laugh with a story in Spanish vs. making them laugh with my attempt at Spanish…huge improvement!
Time and time again I find that there might not be anything more simple and wonderful than sharing a meal…even one that starts with my steak in the garbage. Add in a dose of culture, language lessons, a fire, the mountains…unforgettable! If only I had learned guitar by now too!
In another trip to the mountains, my new partner in crime, The Great Dane Henrik returns and we forgo the organized excursion to the Puente del Inca (see below) to figure it out on our own. Once again, we’re the only gringos on a local bus and dropped off at what feels a bit more like a truck stop next to a tourist site than an actual town.
We walked out to a makeshift cemetery where those who have lost their lives in mountaineering in the surrounding Andes are honored. The whole valley was vacant and dry and bathed in deserty gold tones and just very atmospheric. It was really emotional to read all of the inscriptions about people who really gave their souls in their entirety to their passion of the mountains. We found a trail leading to the back side of the Puente del Inca and came across some local artists, for lack of a better term, who put all sorts of things like vases and bird houses and shoes, etc etc up against the flow of the springs there, to create this saline/sulphur coating and a souvenir to boot. They tossed one over to us to have. I’m always so grateful for little gifts and interactions like these and always seeking ideas for something to give or share with people as well.
We took a walk to get a view of the majestic and challenging Aconcagua, but sadly it was seeking solace in clouds for the day. This turned into a neat condor safari of sorts, as we watched several of these massive birds soaring and swooping through the valley. We got quite close to one of them as a whole group descended on some hawks and their prey. It was super cool to witness this valley of condors.
Some things I miss about Argentina have stood out as I’ve been here in Honduras. I miss the Spanish, or Castellano I should say! The Argentino people are so friendly and patient when it comes to learning their language. In Central America I find that they just want to speak English because it’s easier. Multiple times in Argentina, even when speaking to someone who has better English than my Spanish, I still was asked if I prefer to speak in Spanish for practice. I appreciate this immensely, even more so now. Another fun thing is that whenever and wherever you are eating, every person who passes you will for sure stop to say “Buen provecho”, whether you be on the side of a trail, having a picnic in the park, etc etc. Also, I started to have some occasions where I’d run into a friend in town. For instance, I ran into my friend León who I had met hiking, at the bus station and we chatted for 30 minutes while waiting for our buses. I guess what I’m saying is that Argentina does very much feel like home for me right now and I’m homesick for it. I will return in a week!
These posts are the most fun because there are endless stories of botched translations and trying to navigate a new culture.
One thing about traveling alone is that it naturally lends to being approached by locals, which is always an opportunity to practice Spanish. The unfortunate thing about this is that when I met a family with an adorable 5 year old kid, I realized that my level of Spanish is not even close to that of a 5 year old yet. The family was lovely though, and practiced with me for a while. Only the dad spoke some English. I told them what I am doing in Argentina, and they were very excited for me.
In my broken Spanish I said, “Quiero vivir en Argentina. Estoy buscando para un lugar a vivir y trabajar.” (I hope that says, “I want to live in Argentina. I am looking for a place to live and work.”
The Dad: “Bueno, bueno. Tienes un novio?” (Do you have a boyfriend?)
Me: “Well, I am looking for that too.”
(only kidding Dad (if you’re reading this), I didn’t even know they had men in Argentina! ;))
They all laughed and then pointed at the brother hiking with them at which point I made my exit.
So yes, my Spanish still needs a lot of work, but I ask questions a lot and I practice everyday. Sometimes in asking an innocent language question, you’re a bit vulnerable.
Example: I asked my hostel owner in Chile how to say, “I’m excited” as in, “I’m excited to go on this trek!” He told me to say, “Estoy excitada” and then proceeded to die laughing at me when I said exactly that. It turns out that he had told me how to say the equivalent of “I’m sexually excited to go on this trek!” So note to Spanish learners out there, ‘excited’ is a word that is lost in translation.
Sometimes I just make the effort myself; confidence being the biggest asset I think you can have in learning a language. It doesn’t always work out, like at the grocery store when intending to say, “Do you accept dólares?” I instead asked if they accept “dolores”…basically asking if I could pay with pain. “Can I punch you in the face for these groceries instead of paying with dollars?” oops! Luckily she thought it was funny too.
Let’s talk hairstyles. The rat tail lives on in Argentina, enough to even call it popular. This isn’t to be outdone with the dred/rat tail mullet combo though. I apologize for not having pictures of this yet; I’m just still in too much awe that people are doing this to their hair on purpose to remember to take a picture.
And buses? It’s a pretty unbearable scenario for efficiency driven Norte Americanos. Many towns don’t actually have a bus station. They have bus shops while the stops are scattered about town. Any corner or shop front might be a “stop”. Some bigger cities, think Buenos Aires, have bus stations. What a treat! Once in the bus station you will notice that there are approximately 50 bus companies, each selling different priced tickets at different times to a mix of places. So while you are going from window to window to see if a company is even going to where you want to go and at a desired time, the exact bus you want is leaving. You read that right, there is no single place in the station that indicates which company has a bus leaving for a location and at what time. You might wait 10 minutes in line to find out that company doesn’t even go to where you want to go.
Camping, my love. There have been a lot of comments here about how rigid Norte Americanos are in regards to camping…so prepared and geared up and strict in our national parks. Whereas here they pack up a bunch of unrefrigerated meat to somehow haul up the mountain for a big asado. The outcome is amazing, but there is a level of casualness that makes me get a visual of someone just throwing some steaks into their backpacks and hoping someone else has brought a knife. Forks? naaahhh. In related news, you’re told to try to smoke sitting down and not while hiking…ya know, to prevent forest fires. For those of us all too familiar with the wild fires in Colorado and the thinness of air, there are so many things wrong with that sentence!
In all reality, Argentina feels so familiar to me, moreso than other countries I have visited. I can tell I am in a different place and there is enough unknown in the language alone where I am getting rich experiences and learning a lot. The familiarity is mostly in landscape and weather. It does challenge me to seek out the differences and learn from them or have a good laugh though, and hopefully I’ve shared some of that here.