Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mendoza - Argentina

The route through the Andes was impressive.  After a bit of hassle resulting in changing our bus company we were finally on the road to Argentina and what a road it was.  We drove on the motorway north from Santiago for an hour or so prior to reaching the mountains and as we ascended we got closer and closer to the snow until it was all around us.  Although the snow was the reason we had been delayed for the better part of a week the fresh powder and frozen rivers meant for a wonderful backdrop to majority of the eight hour journey.  We cruised up icy roads with sharp winding bends and past the ski lifts of a resort or two until we reached passport control, queue one side to exit Chile and the other side to enter Argentina.  I was amazed that the queue was only as long as the passengers on our bus considering the pass had been closed for so long and this was only the second day that it had been open; even so I wasn’t complaining as it was bitterly cold (we later discovered that the border was jam packed the day before when we were cavorting around vineyards).  As my passport was stamped a fox trotted past the entrance to the shelter, it didn’t take long to have our baggage checked before gratefully hopping out of the cold and back onto the bus.

The route through the Andes
Arriving at night in Mendoza meant that we were under pressure to find a hostel; we had tried several times to find a Couchsurfing host for Mendoza during our time in Santiago with no success.   We ended up sharing a taxi with a girl called Vicki who we had met at the bus station in Santiago to a hostel where we negotiated a room for the same price as a dorm.  After the three of us had a great dinner at Cocina Espanola we hung out in the hostel kitchen which was an open air affair meaning some chilly late night cups of tea where we met two guys from America or Savannah and Houston to be more precise which are the most important parts of the States to me for family reasons so it was nice to chat.  When it was a bit too cold to sit out any longer we headed back and went to bed. 

The following morning we had finally received a successful response on Couchsurfing and needed to check out in order to make our way to our host Ricardo’s house, easier said than done when all you have is an address in a new country with no personal transport.  I was told in the guest house that I needed to use a pay phone in order to call the mobile that Ricardo had left us, yet having tried two different ones endlessly feeding coins that immediately dropped out and feeling as stupid and naïve as a ten year old boy I asked around to discover that you couldn’t call mobiles from payphones!  Instead what I needed to do was find a kiosk or private business which provided a phone on which you could call mobiles which took some time but I still got to talk to Ricardo on a dodgy line and work out which bus I needed even if the stop wasn’t clear.  It was great strolling round Mendoza in the daytime; it is a relatively modern town but definitely doesn’t have a city vibe owing to the businesses being small and the pace in the most part relaxed.  There are plenty of shops, eateries, bars and hostels in the center making for a great backpacking hub if you want a bit of comfort and want to spend a bit of money without much hassle or danger; the popular avenue of Villanueva where we were staying was especially lively.         

After checking out of our hostel we took our bus and after about half an hour a friendly passenger who had overheard us talking to the bus driver mentioned to us that this was our stop.  We got off and presented her with our intended address which was received with a kiss on the cheek and an introduction to “Laura’ which we found quite forward for a stranger.  She told us to follow her to a house which had a security gate which lead to another door to a vet’s practice that she beckoned us through upon which we started asking questions.  It turned out that by a massive coincidence Laura (pronounced Lowra) worked for Ricardo, our new Couchsurfing host and when seeing the address we needed she put two and two together.  We were still kind of overwhelmed walking into a vet similar to what we get at home with the reception area, posters and odds and bods for sale all over the place.  It so happened that we didn’t get to meet Ricardo that night but we did meet three of his staff who were exceptionally friendly and one of them, Rodrigo had a job as a doggy hairdresser which was awesome.  We jokingly arranged to give me a trim at some point during our stay and I found it novel that even when greeting the blokes it meant a kiss on the cheek for Kate and I which made my offer of a handshake seem very cold.  Later the household cats introduced themselves, a big black friendly tomcat and a timid tortoiseshell moggie.  We had his daughter’s room, two single beds surrounded by toys and we needed to move the cot off one of them before we could bunk but it was fun and very comfortable.  

Two new friends

The vet practise at the front of the house

Ricardo had left a note informing us that he wouldn’t be finishing work until eleven that evening, we had slept in and not really left enough time for a wine tour but even so we decided to head into the popular wine region of Maipu to see what the crack was.  In comparison to the vineyards around Santiago these areas were a lot more built up but I’m sure the tours would have been just as good yet we felt there was no need for us to do another having been on one a couple of days prior, we appreciate the importance of the region for wines but we aren’t here tick boxes for the sake of it.  We headed back to town and had a nice meal overlooking the Independence Plaza before heading back to the elusive Ricardo’s who we finally met shortly after an evening playing with the cats.  We shared a couple of beers and chatted until we felt like we had all known each other all our lives before hitting the hay.  He was an awesomely laid back bloke and made us feel right at home.  

Shrine dedicated the the folk saint known as Gauchito Gil
On our final full day in Mendoza we headed to a nearby outdoor mall which also had a supermarket where we could do some shopping for the dinner that night where we would be meeting Ricardo’s daughters, brother and friends.  Ricardo was a great cook and began cooking the local dish called ‘locro’ made with haricot beans and chorizo amongst other things from early that afternoon.  Whilst waiting for the guests to arrive Ricardo was using empty bottles of Fernet, an aniseed based liquor that is very popular in Argentina in order to make drinking glasses.  He did this by tying an alcohol soaked string round the neck, he then set fire to the string before dunking the whole thing in cold water in order to cause the glass to break with the intention of sanding the sharp edges down at a later date.  

When friends arrived there were more kisses on the cheek for everybody and we all had a chance to practice our alternate tongues.  Our host’s daughter Augustina was a very confident young five year old and little Lucia was a very well behaved bambina of eleven months.  There was plenty of chatter, wine was flowing, the meal was absolutely delicious and almost everybody went in for a second helping at the least.  For desert we tried Batata which is a very sweet translucent jelly-like block that you cut into slivers and eat with cheese, a very strange combination of flavours that would take some getting used to but definitely not unpleasant.  The atmosphere was that of one big happy family and it was quite late when guests scraped the Play-Doh off their shoes and left.        
Ricardo and his bottle glass making

Round the dinner table

Everyone loves Play Doh!
The following day we said goodbye to Ricardo and boarded the bus to the center where we dropped our bags off at the bus station storage depot and went out in Mendoza one more time before our thirteen or so hours bus ride to Buenos Aires.  The pace of the day was set when we ordered a cheap pizza and relaxed on a street side table with a beer watching the world go by.  On the television in a cafe I caught glimpses of the turmoil going on at the stadium of River Plate, one of the two biggest teams in Argentina who had just been relegated for the first time in their one hundred and ten year history of top flight Argentine football.  There were pitch invasions and the players were being escorted off the field as they were attacked by fans having only managed a draw in their final game.  There is an extremely large park to the west of the town, full of joggers and dogs chasing the joggers.  It has a tremendous amount of space but all in all the park served more functional purposes than scenic, we still enjoyed lazily sipping on our ‘chico’ coffees as the lycra clad mob made their way around us with the occasional jealous eye.

We decided to make our way slowly to the bus station with the intention of stopping at a couple of bars on the way as there was still time to kill (oh the joys).  The first place we stopped was an empty Chinese themed bar where we had street side drinks again.  Our waiter informed us that they had karaoke which we didn’t take too seriously until we finished the beer whereupon it became a great idea.  The bar didn’t have too many songs in English, yet they did manage to find a folder with some classics starting with Hotel California and finishing with Take That.  It was good fun, the staff sang a couple of Chinese numbers and even though there was nobody in the bar whenever we sung the lights were dimmed, the flashing lights came on as did the dry ice machine.

Having a good old sing song

It was then time to make our way to the bus station where we had time to share another beer before almost missing our bus which was on the wrong platform and had the destination of ‘Retiro’ which as we had heard this word used by waiters (‘retira’ as in remove) to see if we had finished our meal we ‘assumed’ (the mother of all f**kups as they say) that the bus was no longer in service or finished when in fact it was the name of our destination station in Buenos Aires.  With a few minutes before it was due to depart we checked it out and were relieved to discover it was our bus and we were greeted by the on board host with a glass of sparkling wine/ champagne stuff.  The evening meal was a bit rank but they filled us with more booze to make amends including a Tia Maria or Whiskey nightcap and we were on our way to the capital.
Travelling in style, well on a coach actually...

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