Place of Dreams

Within five minutes of being in the Defender, Ronnie pipes up to tell me that the truck is running on oil from all those fried milanesas that are near and dear to the tastebuds of Argentinos. A local restaurant serving minutas (fast food) would serve as our “gas” station and we made a small detour to get a barrel of the used oil.

He hands me a rock as he jumps out of the car. Upon returning he tells me that it is from a meteor that hit the earth in Moldova and that it changed his fortune over night when he came in contact with it. I close my fingers around it, smiling at the idea and thinking, “Porqué no? why not? …could work just as much as anything” and I hope for fortune to melt out of it into my palm.

By the time we’re bumping along the road and flying through the turns around Lago Gutierrez, we are trading stories about the healthy and healing powers of plants. He pulls over to the side of the road to pick a tiny, bitter branch for me to taste, supposedly it helps with digestion or something.

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The final few miles took us down a gritty side road and into Nahuel Huapi National Park. We drove through the wooden gate, through a corridor of trees and into a panoramic view of my new home. Horses wandered around freely, chased by the border collies. A wall of mountains with a skirt of trees that sprouted a waterfall stood guard over the glacial lake.

No explanation was needed for how this place got its name, Peuma Hue (pey-oo-mah, wey), Mapuche for Place of Dreams.

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Having looked through the webpages of this high end, rustic resort before coming, I had been hypnotized by the views, the luxurious log cabins, the descriptions of the healthy organic food and the focus on yoga, mindfulness and magic that immersion in nature brings.

For the guests, yes, the reality is this fairytale. But for me, this would be different. I was coming here as a cultural exchange…swapping work in the gardens and kitchen in return for food and a shared room in the staff house.

As I was introduced to the reality of what this would be like, the perfect panorama I had driven into began to unravel. Anxiety and fear stirred inside of me. My chest tightened and the heat of the emotions boiled up through my body, rising to my face and creating a frenzy of activity in my rattled brain.

I worried about my health, which is always a struggle for me. Would they give us healthy food? Argentina and vegetables…especially of the green variety…don’t always tango together.

What would the other people be like? Nine of us in a tiny house? How would I balance myself among being social, the expected workload and writing my book?

Would I be able to write my book? Would I have the time and space to do that?

What if it didn’t work out? What were my other options? I didn’t have time or money to look for something new.

The uneasy feelings churned inside me as I realized how far we were from town and the nearest place to buy a bottle of wine, which I was wanting right about then. I then took a deep breath and walked in on myself having this reaction. I knew I needed to get some time alone outside in nature to wander, write and work through this.

I spent the afternoon exploring, walking along the rocky shores of the immaculate lake and through the gardens that were still asleep for the winter. I gazed up at the mountains, adorned with snow and stood there admiring their rugged beauty. I walked along the gravel path that wound through the property around the log cabins, crossing the fallen tree bridge over the creek and to the stone temple on the hill.

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I had been independent for a year and a half, answering to no one but the call to adventure. I would now be at the mercy of my new circumstances, losing my autonomy. I would be accountable to someone else’s dream and expectations. I would now have to write in between my work shifts, hoping inspiration and energy would meet me on demand.

I hadn’t thought about this and felt blindsided by it. It was like watching the movie of a book you have read and loved, only to find out that they had gotten it all wrong when translating it for the screen.

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I sat on the steps of the temple and journaled…about what I was feeling, about what I wanted for my time there. I realized that this was a familiar reaction to being thrown into unknowns, fear that it won’t work out. I’ve learned that the best thing to do is to notice what you can control and take positive action towards that, let go of expectations, seek to learn and be surprised. I listed my intentions and started a list of ideas for falling deeply into my life there and committed myself to doing just that.

The negativity and fear wilted away. My heart was now exploding with gratitude for having this opportunity arise for me, allowing me to continue my journey. I felt full of peace, grace, awe and devotion for the wilderness around me, as if these mountains had been calling me and I had finally found them.

This is the serendipity that I had hoped for when setting out to show up in the world and see what happens. I was living in the mountains for the first time and would be there for six months.

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Solita en Bariloche

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… 

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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. 

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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