Gaucho See, Gaucho Do – An Authentic Life

Don’t all spontaneous adventures start out with an invitation to road trip out to the desert to buy goat skins? Enter again, Lucas, the dapper gaucho who I had met at Estancia La Alejandra for the incredible experience on horseback. We’re sitting in a quintessential Argentino cafe in Mendoza, basking in the high sun and enjoying a bottle of white wine at lunch on a Tuesday, like ya do, when he mentions that he was going to head out to the desert where a guy who knows a guy who owns a roadside restaurant and raises goats, occasionally sells their skins for leather…great price. As a teenager, Lucas had headed out to the desert to live with the Huarpes people and apprentice to their particular style of leatherwork, developing quite the knack for this unique skill. This is what lunch is like with Lucas, casual mentions of indigenous art and errands to the desert as if he were talking about picking up the dry cleaning…chilled out, unconventional, and full of surprises. Ok, so maybe it wasn’t an invitation, but I immediately invited myself anyway.

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Fruits of the Harvest

The first thing I do when I am getting ready to visit a new country is to research what festivals they have. There are so many festivals that I’d like to go to worldwide, and I’m sure there are many more that I just don’t even know about yet. It was quickly obvious that the cream of the crop festival in Argentina is Vendimia, the harvest festival in Mendoza. As is often my luck with timing, I had just missed it by a month last year when I first arrived in Mendoza. Now that I was living here I was determined to soak in everything ‘harvest’ this year, most definitely including the festival itself.

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Riding to the Hills

My parents had told me that they wanted to experience what my life has been like in Argentina while visiting. While I didn’t make them stay at a hostel and share a room with 7 other people and a bathroom with even more, they did agree to try one of the famed long distance Argentine buses. 18 hours between Bariloche and Mendoza to be exact.

It started out utterly entertaining, as the man came around passing out bingo cards for the chance to have some fun with your fellow passengers while competing for a bottle of decent wine. Porqué´no? Then it was movie time. At about 11:00pm as we’ve been listening to the cymbals crashing in the dramatic intro music about every 2 minutes on repeat, we see people hunkering down to sleep for the night, and I am whispering a massive apology to my parents that this is the first time ever that I have not been served dinner on an 18 hour bus ride. We decided to eat the peaches that we had brought with us for breakfast and are throwing the pits in a plastic bag as the lights are flicked on and everyone is woken up for dinner, hilarious and so Argentina. So after a couple hours in one town getting gas, a ham and cheese sandwich, 3 alfajores, 4 movies, and a little bit of sleep, we arrive in Mendoza.

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Foodie Argentina

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Settling into Mendoza

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.