Tuesday, July 21, 2009

From East to West in Argentina ­- Chapter Two

As Juan and Michellé ventured out on our own for the first time in Argentina, without the wise advice and watchful eye of our trusted friend and guide Martin Martin (who taught us, among other things, the intricacies of bus riding and peso procurement) a few questions crossed our minds - will our combined knowledge of about 50 words en éspanol get us across the country and back? Will Michellè's vegetarianism be compromized due to a lack of sin carne options? Are we unknowingly venturing into a fire-ridden, flu-ravaged pool of terror and disease? Ah - fear not, friends! With a combination of luck, wit, and a few uttered threats from a tall, bearded Canadian who constantly boasts a sun-inspired-scowl, it was pretty darn certain that everything would be perfecto. I mean, hey, we made it back to write the blog post, right?

Our adventure started before we even left Buenos Aires. With four minutes to go before our bus departed for Mendoza, we found ourselves madly rushing from one end of the terminal to the other, attempting to figure out how and where to catch a bus that wasn't registering on any of the schedule boards. Luckily, we made it. Not only was this good because it allowed us to, you know, reach our destination, but it also afforded us an opportunity to experience the unexpected bus culture in Argentina. In just a few words: champagne, wine, whiskey, and blaring 80s music videos. 10 hours and some Tears for Fears later, we found ourselves stumbling off the party bus and watching the sun rise in Mendoza province ...

First stop, Uspallata: the town of Uspallata is located in the province of Mendoza and finds itself nestled in the Andes in the middle of the Argentine and Chilean frontiers. Upon arriving, we naturally started looking for a taxi to get to our hotel. Without a taxi in sight, we walked a block and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of town. Town, of course, being one street. Lucky for us, the beautiful landscape more than made up for the lack of cityscape. Our time in Uspallata was spent mountain biking in the Andes, walking through fields and streets with our adopted dog, Carlos, and musing over the inexplicably large and rather threatening military presence in town (It was quite an experience to have a fully armed and camouflaged military batallion pointing guns at us - Argentinians can sleep soundly knowning that the Grupa de Artilleria de Montaña is prepared to defend a Chilean advance through the Andes!). Hey, Lonely Planet and Fodor's, why no love for the Pizzaria?! The two "travel guides"totally sidestepped what is clearly the best kept culinary secret in Uspallata. Folks, if you happen to be in the Andes, stop off at La Pizzaria on Uspallata's main street. For 60 pesos you can dabble in some delicious pizza (vegetarian options available if pre-beginner Spanish spoken), a bottle of outstanding Malbec and a healthy, tasty salad that will leave you stuffed. The tolerant staff even let two talkative - and slightly oblivious - foreigners remain in the restaurant well after closing time. Well played, Uspallata, well played.

Second stop, Mendoza City: welcome to wine country! Mendoza accounts for 70% of Argentina's wine production, and recent findings show that the province exports nearly 95% of it's wine around the world. The city of Mendoza is kinda like the West Coast Canadian city of Victoria - it is quaint, quiet and sanitized for the millions of tourists who flock their from around the world. The city was actually destroyed in 1861 by an earthquake that levelled the city and killed over 11, 000 people. By the end of the 19th century, Mendoza was "reconstructed on a grid, making it easy to explore on foot." Well said, Fodor's. But you forgot to mention the five outstanding and community-centred plazas (Espana, San Martin, Italia, Chile, and Independencia) that create a vibrant hang-out for youth, seniors, senors, police, philosophers, luncheoning businesspeople, and folks who just wanna make out (there was and is a lot of love in Mendoza). Our hotel - La Hotel Zamora - was located right in the centre of town and had a garden-hallway (complete with koi pond) that made my dad smile just by being there. We toured two wineries (Vistandes and Granata) as well as the Laur olive oil factory. Good times were had by a lot of Argentinians, some Dutch, a Swiss fellow, a Columbian, some Irish lasses, and a couple of Canadians who, after some direction, stopped drinking the olive oil and putting wine on all their bread. Just kidding, we're totally cultured. In fact, Brenda Enegren, my co-worker/sommelier/friend, would've been proud of us. Michellé even caught the hint of red peppers in the Granata Malbec! Mendoza also offered a range of culinary experiences. First, there was La Florenica, a Boston Pizza of a place that got Juan's order wrong and proceeded to drench Michellé's rice and chicken in enough oil to put the Laur factory out of business. The kitchsy ambiance was great, but it wasn't enough. And then there was La Tasca de Plaza España. Amazing atmosphere (we even got an intimate table in the back), amazing tolerance of our limited Spanish and, most importantly, amazing vegetarian-sensitive food. The fish au gratin was out of this world in a way that matched the tastiness of the torrentes wine with which it was paired. Mendoza, it was a pleasure.

Third stop, San Juan:
oh my God!!! Nuclear Zombies have attacked the town of San Juan and no one in the city survived!!! Oh wait, it's Sunday in Argentina. Let's back-track, though. The visit to San Juan started with a rather eccentric and risk-taking taxi driver, who chucked our backpacks in his trunk and, well, didn't close it. We sped off into the dusty, cold night with the trunk's lid bouncing up and down. Further to this, we also stopped next to some rather seedy characters who sneakily eyed our bags. Juan was perched on the edge of his seat, ready to burst out the door and chase down any theives, but it never came to that. Now, back to the zombies. Okay, so there weren't any zombies. More likely, a combined love of rest, family, markets, sport, and Jesus kept 99.9% of San Juanians off the streets on our first day in the town, Sunday, which made searching for food and drink slightly challenging. Speaking of food and drink, San Juan, of all places, possessed a leafy green vegetarian buffet called Soychu. It was delicious and yielded a wide range of vegetarian dishes that ranged from quiche to homemade pasta to stuffed peppers to, thank heaven, a salad bar!!! But, dear readers, the piece de resistance for San Juan province was, without a doubt, the Difunta Correa shrine in Vallecito. Pictures say more than words, and we added a few of em. Here are some words, though: Correa was following her husband, a soldier fighting in the civil wars of the 1840s, through San Juan when she died; her baby, however, lived by suckling on her breast and this has been declared a miracle by a grassroots community (ironically enough led by long-haul truck drivers) that has, for over a hundred years, championed her cause in, well, one of the weirdest and most amazing displays of spirituality that anyone has ever seen. Michellé and Juan walked around like this [insert image gaping, awestruck face here] the entire time. All the license plates, bottles of water, trophies, model houses, plaques, and countless other trinkets are purposed to thank Correa for creating miracles (like cars, houses, success). The Catholic Church, officially, doesn't like it, either. Perhaps they are displeased with a massive grassroots movement that represents a fusion of Catholic and indigenous beliefs. Oh, be sure to pee before arriving in Vallecito, as bathrooms are hidden and the bus ride is two hours. San Juan, you started off with mixed reviews but came through strong in the end - it might have been, um, a miracle!

Last stop, Cordoba: worst. Bus ride. Ever. After the initial party bus to Mendoza, we were pretty excited about spending the night in gluttunous bus glory. One can only imagine how disappointed we were to spend the night on a cold bus with - no lie - only Ricki Lake in a horrid 1984 film to keep us company. No champagne, no whiskey. Life was hard. Luckily, Cordoba was amazing and well worth the torturous journey. The vibrant city was chok-a-block full of university students and colonial architecture. The final leg of the journey was spent exploring the numerous museums and art galleries (since when do notebook scribbles classify as post-modern art?), and marvelling at neo-gothic cathedrals. A highlight includes the Parroquia Sagrado Corazon de Jesus cathedral, which boasts a missing steeple to symbolize human imperfection. Speaking of human imperfection, we capped off our journey with a trip to La Cumbre to go paragliding. After nearly missing our bus after two individuals guided us incorrectly to a nonexistent ticket booth at the bus stop (44 is pretty close to 68, right?), we made our way up to one of the world's top paragliding destinations. Despite some human error in misjudging Juan's weight (it's okay, Pablo, you landed us safely after a scary few minutes caught in an updraft) and resultant free spin in the clouds (oh, the joys of human imperfection!), we experienced other-wordly beauty as we flew with the Condor's through the Sierras. If you're ever in the neighbourhood, look up Fechu - a former Argentine paragliding champion who showed us a very wicked and adventurous time. Food, architecture, culture, adventure, young people; Cordoba had it all, baby!

Juan's reflections: "If I had to rank the cities I would probably do it this way: Uspallata, Cordoba, Mendoza, and San Juan. It's the rural hick in me, man. The rugged outdoorsy-ness of the frontier town just made me feel right at home. The cultural highlight was definitely Difunta Correa - never seen anything like it, and probably never will again. And, hey, I gotta say that I was pretty impressed with my ability to 'speak Spanish' throughout the journey. Mostly, though, I was impressed by my ability to consume an entire cow over the course of 10 days...thanks for that, Argentina. And Michelle was and is a terrific travel companion who tolerated my saying 'si' over and over as 'speaking Spanish' as well as my shoes, which rightfully lived in the closet of our hotel rooms following our mountainbiking through the Andes."

Michellé's reflections: "The trip really couldn't have offered any more. Nature, adventure, culture, and delicious food! Mountain biking through the Andes was definitely a highlight for me - although it's annoying to hear, it really is one of those 'have to be there to believe it' experiences. the scope and scale were unlike anything I've ever seen. Regrets? Well, there were a few ridiculously cute babies and dogs (Carlos!) and many bottles of wine that I would have like to bring back with me. Alas, they must live on in photos (or must they?? insert evil laughter here...). In all seriousness, a fantastic trip with a fantastic travel partner. Despite signing up for an annual membership at a Cordoban grocery strore and possibly offering to sell me, Juan's Spanish savvy was superb (si!), and his humour and sense of adventure were unparalleled."

After a Suite Class bus ride home, which saw our seats turn into beds that even Juan, the tallest person in Argentina, could sprawl out on (Canada, we can learn something from South American bus culture) our unravelling travelers arrived in Buenos Aires a little tired, pretty smelly and ready to relax before living it up in the big city on their last week of vacation. The final chapter will tell such tales!


- Juan and Michellé


Theodora Lamb said...

Love, love, love the stories! So, were there tears when you left Carlos, the dog?

Carolyn said...

Can't wait till you get back to hear all your stories. Sounds like you're having an absolutely 'fantorktasktic' time! Safe travels.

godfrey said...

well played, Pablo, well played. Gracias for getting Juan back to earth in one piece. It's true, he looks heavier or lighter than he really is. (depends on the angle)

Kurt Heinrich said...

I liked the pictures. I hear there are many, many pictures...

John Horn said...

Kurt, I hope that you are looking forward to viewing about 2500 pictures as well as about two hours worth of video. They're really quite magical. Trust me.

See you at the airport, good sir!


Megan said...

What an awesome story of adventure & fun times. I'm sure it's just the smallest tidbit, but it really sounds like you two had an amazing time!

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