Besos y La Finca

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mountains, Meals, and Homesickness

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.   Image

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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!

Next time…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Sunrise over Mendoza
Sunrise over Mendoza