When I followed him up the stairs and onto the terrace, I knew I had I found the perfect Caribbean writer’s haven before he even opened the door. It was up a hill with a balcony overlooking a tiny bay with mountains that held the blue sea in a sweet little embrace. It was dry season, so the hills were a rusty, brambly tangle of bare branches and tall cacti…not the tropical green I was expecting. From my vantage point, the tree tops hid the shabby town below and hosted big iguanas that would sometimes climb to the top branches. The place was small, open air with a beautiful view, and it was my retreat. It was so wonderfully situated that the sun set over the sea even when I imagined we were facing east. Magic! This is where I would write my book, in Taganga, Colombia.
When I left Argentina, I had a gut feeling that I would be back soon. I still had quite a bit of pesos that would be useless to me once I left and I hung onto them anyway specifically because of this feeling. I spent the night at the Lima airport leaving a sign leaning up against me saying something to the effect of, “My flight leaves at 8:00am. If you see me still asleep here at 7:00am, please wake me up. Many thanks.” When the flight landed in Bogotá people cheered and they turned on some loud bumping salsa music to escort us off the plane. I traded my neck cramps for a smile.
My plan was to stay in Bogotá for a week and then head straight to the coast to find a writing haven, lest I be tempted to start exploring the entire country. Bogotá took me by surprise. It was chilly and overcast, modern and hip…none of which I expected although I’m not sure I knew what to expect.
The first thing to catch my attention and my heart (via my taste buds) was all of the fresh fruit carts everywhere. Coconut (fresh or candied), mango (2 types), watermelon, pineapple, plums, mora, guanabana, guayaba, papaya, avocado, the tart passion fruit and its sweet sister granadilla, those tiny sweet bananas, cantelope, “tomato tree” fruit as directly translated…not coincidentally, this would eventually become my weekly shopping list. It is one of the best and cruelest parts about traveling, to experience something so completely amazing and eventually have to leave it behind when you move on. And so I dove fully into the “completely amazing” part of this tropical phenomenon and had fresh fruit juice and fresh fruit several times a day. I would love to fly my sister to meet me in Colombia and we would just sit on a curb in front of bright and wild graffiti putting the ‘passion’ in passion fruit, eating it until our tongues are puckered as puckered can be and can’t handle a single bite more. Tart, crunchy, tropical vacation in edible form, and I am biased towards its name…passion fruit (maracuya) is a truly wonderful fruit.
I am happy to report that even the Colombians seem to draw the line at frying their fruit, because I promise you they seem to fry just about everything else. They have restaurants where you get plastic gloves given to you at the table to help manage the grease.
At least they just own it… “We fry things, take your gloves, buen provecho.”
Corn empanadas…fried, arepas: basically corn dough patty filled with eggs, sausage, meat and such…fried, papa rellenos: mashed potato balls filled with meat and egg…fried. Deep fried and exactly what you want out of street food, yum. Much of our time in Bogotá was spent wandering and eating, trying to catch the sunlight at that magical, golden hour when the colorful buildings of La Candelaria district would glow.
We bought a box of wine (I wish I could tell you it was the last time we did that; “Toto, we’re not in Argentina anymore” – Dorothy) and leaned up against a wall of a small plaza to people watch. Hipsters came through with their skateboards, students gathered around the platform where a storyteller was engaging the crowds, and in front of us sat a couple of guys with guitars. As the sun set, the police came to shoe everyone out and we naturally followed the stragglers who were following the guitars. We ended up in another little plaza, sitting in a circle on the grass, grinning at the jam session we were now a part of. More and more people showed up and they started singing. A couple of bikers joined in, using their helmets as drums. And then two guys who could just as easily have been crashing a wedding, pedaled up on bikes wearing suits, with a saxophone and melodica (thank you Wikipedia) in tow. At this point I thought to myself, if I do not join in I will forever believe this is just a dream. I found a pouch in my purse I use for make up and loaded it with keys and coins and jingled my heart out.
Since I arrived in Colombia, I had had nightmares about being robbed and my body had been a mess, perhaps because of the fried food, but I feared something much worse…I had made a mistake in leaving Argentina. I realized that I had been like a young lover comparing this new love to an old one, Colombia vs. Argentina. This moment naturally put me in touch with part of my process for going through a change…create something. It was exactly the kind of experience that I needed to let the melody carry away my fears and put me in the present moment with that warm and fuzzy feeling of a special, serendipitous adventure.
With Spanish checked off the list on Night 1, I wanted to show my aunts and uncle what I love about Argentina, the chilled out lifestyle with good food and wine. We had a day of wandering the super hip, bohemian, muraled port city of Valparaiso in Chile, and then headed to Mendoza, the perfect city to wine and dine. Wine, dine, pool, repeat. No problemo.
We spent a day in Valle de Uco, the darling of Mendocino wine country. Due to its more remote location at the base of the mountains, there’s the extra punch of flavor and complexity that you get from the grapes who bear the higher altitude. We started out at Salentein, a larger vineyard with a dramatic aesthetic to its wine cellar (pictured below). I had been writing for The Vines of Mendoza blog, and wanted to share this experience with them. And so we moved on to a long, lazy lunch at Siete Fuegos, the new Francis Mallmann restaurant at The Vines. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. It was a special and ‘elevated’ experience, pun intended.
Our paths were wonderfully crossing for one night with my dear friend Trinity from California and her husband Jeff and quite possibly the happiest baby ever, their 1 year old Ivory. I planned ahead for our laughter/volume level and reserved us the table in the wine cellar room at one of my favorite restaurants. We had the room to ourselves and could conveniently get up to choose another bottle of wine from the racks of the “wine list” at our leisure. Which we did. Frequently. The party continued back at our hotel where we gathered to play guitar, sing, and drink more wine. Who knew we were so naturally Argentine!
When we didn’t have anyone joining us for dinner, we made friends with the chef himself. After a day wandering around the parks, plazas, and cafes of Mendoza we went to Siete Cocinas, a restaurant in town that immediately feels like home when someone answers the door and guides you to whichever room your table is in. We did a tasting menu of the 7 regions of Argentina, highlighting that you can have exquisite food from each region without having beef. For example, even the pallet cleanser was divine…a frutos de bosque sorbet that tasted like each of my taste buds was a culinary magnifying glass for the essence of the berry.
Perhaps this would’ve been another night to have our own private room though. A massive storm moved in, overflowing the deep gutters that resembled moats throughout Mendoza in a matter of minutes. Luckily we had already befriended Chef Pablo, who I can only assume found us highly entertaining, as he kept us happy with spontaneously mixed cocktails and dessert wine on the house. Games were played, we watched cars fly by sending walls of water up, giggled like kids and extended invitations for the Chef to visit us in the States. We’ve been feeling so inspired by the generosity and friendliness we were experiencing everywhere.
In the spirit of continuing our shared experiences, we came back from a day in the mountains to meet another dear friend of mine, Carmen la artista, who I met as she was painting beautiful murals and I was working on my writing. We had a happy hour picnic in the hotel with the food and wine we had forgotten to take into the mountains with us. From there we were headed out to dinner and ran into John, a friend who we had met on the plane from Santiago and then continued to run into at the winery and again in our hotel. So this motley crew headed to dinner together. John is opening a winery here in Mendoza, and already oversees two wineries in Oregon and Napa, so we got a free lesson in wine tasting and our very own sommelier at the table. We toasted to all of us living our passions and serendipitous friendships.
From here we moved on to Buenos Aires and waited for my parents to arrive. Eager to invite them immediately into this culinary ride we were on, we had dinner plans for a closed door restaurant that night, Colectivo Felix. My friend Nick had lived in Buenos Aires with the chef of this unique restaurant that is run out of someone’s home. We were invited into the garden to have a fresh herbal twist on the caipirinha cocktail and meet the other guests. We then moved into the small courtyard for the rest of the meal, which had candlelit tables and white lights sparkling, colorful flags flying above. Vegetables and herbs grown right there from the garden we had just come from highlighted the unique flavor twists and seafood. It was so fresh and delicious. All of this eating was wonderful, but it was time to shake a tail feather.
We spent the day wandering through the San Telmo market, one of my favorite ways to spend a day…taking in all of the art and craftsmanship, stopping at cafes, enjoying the buskers. Of course we had to head to la Boca too, not only to see the colorful houses, but also to take in some tango, as we’d be trying it ourselves later that night. I convinced my family to head to La Catedral for a tango lesson and as I took photos of them being led through the warm-up exercises, arms in the air, hips moving side to side, I was so happy and proud of how fully they embraced the entire culture. And it turns out we’ve got some talent! Well, maybe I shouldn’t include myself in that, but by the end of the night, they could genuinely say that they can tango. Considering the first exercise involved learning how to walk, I was so impressed to see them glide across the floor, trying out different moves in time to the mysterious and dramatic tango music.
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.