Ups and Downs Argentina

Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
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Trip End Apr 30, 2013


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Monday, December 24, 2012

Our last week in Chile was peppered with weather that - as a Yorkshireman I am ashamed to say this - was just too much for me. We've gotten used to sunshine and more sunshine in the last few months (even at those places high atop mountains in chilly temperatures there was always a need for slapping on the suncream), and then, arriving in the Lakes District of Chile, about halfway between its top and its bottom, the skies became less predictable, and wind, clouds and rain seemed ever threatening to fade our beautiful tans. It wasn’t always bad weather, there were times of blue sky, but when that blue sky came we found ourselves thanking the heavens for it. I don’t blame you for taking pleasure in this fact. Kerri seemed to take this weather with much better grace than I.  

The Lakes District of Chile is certainly a beautiful place, not dissimilar to England’s own poetry-inspiring Cumbria. As such, it is one of the first places we have visited that felt strangely like home to me. Perhaps the lakes themselves are on a slightly larger scale, and the mountains (and volcanoes) that surround them are somewhat loftier and snowier, but apart from that the landscapes seemed very familiar (those myriad shades of gorgeous green). We camped for a few nights in Pucon, one of the more popular towns in the area amongst tourists, visited much for its cycling, trekking and other adventure activities available. We spent one day hiding out in the tent, waiting for the rain to stop (again, you can feel smug about it, but we don’t care), and then another was spent astride a bicycle, making a fifty-kilometer round trip to another nearby lake (Kerri had issues with an uncomfortable bike and so had to turn back to town after ten minutes, but instead of quitting the race, hopped on a bus and surprised me by arriving at said lake at the exact same time, albeit with much less sweating and panting on her part). This lake was beautiful, with soft, yellow beaches, clear waters and pretty green slopes rising all around it. We visited three lakes in this area, all as charming as each other.

 I don’t really have much else to say about the area. I can tell you that the nearby Volcano Villarica – snowy blanketed and shining brilliantly white when set against the blue sky - dominated the landscape the way a massive mound of iced Christmas pudding might dominate a table feast. It really did remind me of a sprawling, cream-topped dessert, spilling over the edges of a plate... Why do I need to describe it like that? You can picture a snow-topped volcano with that wonderful mind of yours.  What’s all this nonsense about Christmas puddings…?

Anyway, Pucon and the surrounding lakes were beautiful, but kind of unnecessary to harp on so much about. After a few days here, we carried on further south to the second largest of Chile’s islands: Chiloe. Chiloe was another place we’d heard a lot about (mainly that it rains a lot there – oh so bloody true!), so we decided to suck it up, brave a little wet weather, and see it for ourselves. Kerri was very much smitten with the place, as it is a beautifully rolling, green island of seaside villages, littered at low tide with boats that look like they’ve sailed in straight out of a Popeye cartoon; and beset along so many of its shores by colourful wooden houses balancing on stilts stuck into the sand. She skipped about like a kid at Disneyworld, chattering about how wonderful it might be to live out our golden years here. "Sure" I muttered into the hood that was forever being blown against my face (again, when you come from a place where the grass grows sideways, you shouldn’t be this bothered by a little breeze – what’s happened to me?). There is some need of general upkeep – most of the houses would benefit simply from a fresh splash of paint, but it all had a kind of quaintly unkempt look, made further romantic by the salty air, glistening beaches, smoking chimneys and constant need for the wearing of waterproof ponchos.

We sampled the local seafood (the biggest shellfish I’ve ever seen), and learnt a little of Chiloe’s uniquely bizzare mythology. They seem to believe in an eternal battle between two opposing deities (crazy so far, right? It gets better), one a kind of good sea snake called 'Ten-Ten Vilu’ who protects the lands from another, badder sea serpent called ‘Cai-Cai Vilu’ (who actually is more like half serpent, half horse), who is angry at man for leaving his original home in the sea, and who threatens to flood the lands in a cataclysm that could wipe out all of us: Rather worrying stuff. Along with these two eternally battling snakes is the legend of a dwarf (The ‘Trauco’) of unparalleled ugliness, who can apparently seduce women to the point of sexual possession by appearing to them in erotic dreams; and a widow (‘La Viuda’) who appears in the night, entrapping men with her breath and using them to satisfy her carnal cravings: Not so worrying. The most intriguing figure is the tragic ‘Invunche,’ a sorry state of a man, who guards some Warlock’s cave door like a twisted bouncer. This unfortunate man was taken from his family at birth by witches, who mutilated him firstly by bending the bones of his leg over his back so he can’t run away (but is revered by yoga practitioners). He is fed on the milk of a black cat and the remains of human corpses stolen from cemeteries.  His own flesh, ironically, is said to cure any and all known ailments, and thus makes him a prize over which witches are wont to dispute. I suppose we can all relate to the poor old Invunche.

For me, the highlight of Chiloe might have been meeting Buzz Lightyear dancing outside an electrical goods shop, and having my photo taken with him. By the grin on his face, he might have been equally taken with meeting me! 

We decided that Chiloe was as far south as we wanted to venture and so, dreaming of bluer skies and drier pastures, took a bus over the nearest border and into Argentina, a country known for its great travelling opportunities, and for such legendary figures as Che Guevara, Maradonna and Evita Peron. Also being known for producing some of the best beef in the world, we were looking forward to a warm reception, interesting culture and some delicious steaks. We were not disappointed, at least, by the beef. We had one of the tenderest and juiciest cuts of meat I’d ever eaten in a bus station one midnight as we awaited a bus that was only a couple of hours late.

 It is said that Argentineans are known for having something of a chip on their shoulder about certain aspects of their global status. Once one of the richest countries in the world, it has struggled and fallen into economic despair over the last hundred years or so through the general tomfoolery of certain political figures that I shan’t pretend to know about. It seems widely accepted that Argentineans see themselves more as European, and less as the wieldy bottom-end of the third-world continent of South America. We had heard that sometimes they can come off as kind of snobby. Not ones to judge (until we feel qualified to, at least), we arrived in Argentina with open minds, but, are sad to say, have been somewhat disappointed with it so far.  We were almost ready to name this chapter of our travels “Having a bit of a shit time,” but always endeavor to paint with a positive brush.

Our first stop was in a touristy town in the Argentinean Lakes District (literally the other side of the Andes from Chile’s). Here we were met by locals who seemed to strongly begrudge our presence. Bus drivers and shopkeepers were curt at best, Tourist Information workers seemed to grumpily give us duff information, resulting in our wasting a lot of time looking for things that weren’t there, and the whole general infrastructure seemed to be one intended to bamboozle and upset the very foreigners whose money has helped make the town what it is (an over-aggrandised chocolate dispensary used mainly as a base for exploring the surrounding mountains). Local buses can only be ridden with a ticket bought beforehand from only certain kiosks that sell them, spread sparsely around the town with no signs or indications of where, or how to attain such golden tickets. Upon finally discovering the kiosk nearest our bus stop, and trying to purchase the necessary tickets to get us to the main station in time to catch our long-distance bus out of there, I was told in a very ‘piss-off’ tone of voice “No.”

“No?” I enquired, in my minimal Spanish, “but why?”

“Finished!” she scowled at me.

“Finished, eh?” What’s finished exactly: The tickets, the buses… your menopause? “ Er… Please madam, where to buy, another place…?”

“That way!” she angrily indicated down the street.  Kerri was the one to undertake the task of hunting down the other place (at least four blocks away) while I kept watch over our bags, trying to resist the urge to cheerfully put a rock through the kiosk window.

So, first stop in Argentina, not a happy one. The best thing about Bariloche was that they seemed to have a thing for knitting colourful jackets for their trees. A baffling but charming tradition which may have been due to the festive period, or may be just that Bariloche is full of barmy and bored old women.

Our next stop after twenty hours of bussing north, with one layover in the middle of the night (that should have been two hours but turned into four – well they do want to be more European, they’ve got their bus timings right for a start – no problem, never mind), was Mendoza, famous for producing wine.  Mendoza is a city of shopping centres and trendy, expensive restaurants, but with an enormous and beautiful park a mere twenty minutes walk from the very centre of town, where I could run around the lake while Kerri tried in vain to photograph the hummingbirds that flit around the trees like they were on amphetamines.

Upon first arriving in Mendoza, feeling disgruntled at the fact that a woman who had originally promised us a couch to surf on there had apparently disappeared off the face of the internet, or was just ignoring us, we decided that we would have to put up with the prices of a wannabe European country, and hope to do more couchsurfing later on to save ourselves some cash. No problem, never mind, we can live cheaply (actually, as much as couchsurfing is great for saving money, we generally like to go and spend what we saved on making nice meals and things, so we don’t couchsurf just to save cash – the best reason really is because making friends in foreign countries is – simply – awesome).

Our list of luck then in Mendoza continued with us getting a taxi to a hostel mentioned in our guide book and then discovering that such hostel seemed to have been derelict for some time. No problem, never mind, Kerri can wait with the bags while Stevie goes in search of another. 

The best hostel in town turned out to be only a two minute walk from where Kerri had sat on the pavement for two hours while Stevie went in a huge circle of the town. No problem, never mind, at least I’m learning the lay of the land and where certain things are (shops, shops, and shopping centers), and I’m happy for the exercise.

Upon deciding, the next day, to visit one of the wineries just outside of town (a crime not to, our guide book insisted), we followed the instructions given at a tourist information booth, jumped on the correct bus, and carefully followed the route on our map, only to discover that this bus does not go to the place it was supposed to, and so we had to get off in the middle of nowhere and return to town with bellies bereft of wine (luckily we had already purchased the return tickets – like in Bariloche, the bus driver does not take cash). No problem, never mind, we’ll console ourselves with having seen some of the countryside, and buy a cheap bottle of wine for the evening from a local supermarket.

Having our e-book reader stolen by a twelve-year-old boy begging from us as we lay under a tree in the town’s main plaza really kind of put the god dam icing on the god dam cake and that’s it! We’ve fricken had it now! This country is really pissing us off! God dammit, that was all our books that we had to read on all those long long distance buses! What now? We’ll have to shell out for a new one! Bah, bloody hell, blinking bugger, and all manner of other swear words! Problem! Mind!

And so, trying to stay cool and composed in the sticky heat of a city centre at Christmas, we spent all the next morning searching every electronics store in town to discover that in Argentina, for some odd reason, e-book readers don’t seem to have been introduced yet.  Alright, no problem, never mind, but this is the last time; hopefully we can arrange for Amazon to send us a new one to the address of a future Couchsurfing host. We’ll see how that goes.  Positive, positive, lah-de-dah!

 Yesterday Kerri very smartly said that enough’s enough, and our luck is going to change from here on in. And here’s where we meet up with you. We had been toying with the idea of just making a beeline for Brazil and forgetting trying to get on any more with Argentina, and then, within less than half an hour, like a bluebird over a rainbow over the disappearing dark clouds, we had switched on the internet and received a golden message from a woman in the town that we actually already had bus tickets for, inviting us to please stay in her home and spend Christmas with her and her family. You couldn’t make this shit up.

We couldn’t quite believe the spooky uncannyness of Kerri’s prediction.  At the moment, we’ve just gratefully accepted Marta’s invitation and are really looking forward to making some friends here, as we’re sure that it will turn our whole perceptions of the country around.  In the meantime, we were almost pleased to be able to offer you a different flavor of our life compared to the previous three months of pretty much perfect luck and smugly amazing times. We feel less guilty now. Please enjoy the very mild misery we have experienced recently, with our compliments. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, all our love  xox
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Comments

A.G. on

I enjoyed reading of your misery very much, thank you!

It's terrible that Argentina has been so rough on you - I'm very disappointed to hear it - but you tell it so well!!

I wish you and Marta a very Merry Christmas together. I agree with Kerri - your luck will turn. Every Argentinian I've ever met has been lovely, so I'm sure you'll encounter good people soon.

Best wishes,

A.G.

Bob on

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving."

— Lao Tzu

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