Sunday, December 28, 2008

Villa General Belgrano -- Carolann's Snapshot

We’ve just returned to Mendoza from a ten-day drive making a big loop through the desert, into the central sierras and back, covering two thousand kilometres. To do this, we rented a tiny white VW Golf with a standard transmission.

Poor Dan had to drive the whole time because I’m not comfortable with a stick shift. So my job was to navigate, maintain the kitty for police bribes, and do what I could to disguise the visual evidence of our car being a rental.

The latter was brilliantly accomplished by a little cotton gauze spread thin across the Hertz decal on the trunk, affixed by white, filmy medical tape. The effect was white on white and eventually was covered, like the rest of the vehicle, by the rust coloured desert sand. Very quickly, we looked like locals to the casual observer, and when Dan got the hang of tail-gaiting and driving like a madman around narrow mountain roads, the metamorphosis was complete.

After four days in the desert (which is another story), Dan and I headed towards Argentina’s central sierras, in which there are many small towns and villages. Just like us, folks from the city get out of town for a long weekend or summer vacation. Some keep summer homes in these valleys cooled by rivers and large lakes against a craggy mountain horizon.

We spent two days at one such place, called Villa General Belgrano, VGB to the residents, one of several towns with large German communities and a taste for traditional Alpine architecture, artisan beer, and dwarfs. Wood signs featuring the likes of Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, or any number of unnamed gregarious gnomes, are prolific across town, as are carved and polished wooden benches. Even a free standing map of the hiking trails around town is carved out of locally felled trees, huge tracts of which in these mountains have been harvested over the years and successfully replanted.

In spite of its economic crisis, small town Argentina does not seem stressed about money. Stores close for whatever reason during the day outside of the normal siesta hours of 12 to 5. We’ve encountered only one tout, a small narcoleptic man whose pitch about a restaurant trailed off mid-sentence.

There are also few advertizing billboards around the small towns if you don’t count graffiti scrawled on crumbling walls. At least the advertisements are not where you expect them. On one of several blind switchbacks crossing the Sierra de Achala, Dan’s eyes were dangerously drawn to an invitation to taste one of Cordoba’s finest cookies.

A day later, strolling through a chocolate shop, we were able to follow through on the invitation. Seeing Dan salivate in front of a display case, the clerk offered him a free taste of alfajores infused with dulce de leche, an oozing, caramel like cream as rich and satisfying as its name suggests. She wouldn’t take any money.

It is recommended that we spend an afternoon in Cumbrecita, a nearby Swiss styled town pasted to the side of a mountain in which cars aren’t allowed and the streets remain unpaved or cobblestoned. It’s a dusty, forty-five minute drive from VGB on a road that’s currently being improved, which may be the death of the town’s otherworldly charm in two years when it will be finished.

The suspension of our rental car holds out and we arrive in the well supervised parking lot just outside of town. A dozen young people dressed in red polo shirts direct tourists’ cars into a shady field where they can be left for the day safely, protected from the sun. It was on this kind of field that Dan had run over a thorn two days earlier, puncturing the tire and requiring immediate repair.

No thorns this time, but now, Dan has locked the keys in the car. Perhaps the Argentine, easy-going lifestyle is rubbing off on me, or maybe it’s just too hot to get angry. I’m beginning to think like a local and see the positive behind a negative. The good news is that no one here knows how to break into a car. The bad news is that no one here knows how to break into a car. Yet all ends well. Another solution is found by way of my slightly opened passenger window through which one young man is able to fish out the keys with a long, hooked wire, bringing them home to a crowd of clapping red shirts, two pink faced gringos, a family of Argentine tourists, and four hopeful street dogs.

The village is a postcard from Switzerland, but a little messier, the beaten earth walkways are pocked from horse hoofs, and chipped rocks poking out of the surface challenge the hiker. Skip, an expat American who works as a chef at one of the many restaurants serving apple strudel and other German delights, says that “most people we see working here actually live here.” The place is for real. I reflect on his words as we sit down on a bench opposite two smiling dwarfs, the sun reflecting white off their varnished surface.

We wander the woody trails and emerge in front of a luxurious alpine hotel, La Cumbrecita. We pass private summer homes, gated but discreet, some with lovely vistas, others ensconced in the forest like hobbit houses. We discover by accident the place where most of the young people are spending the afternoon, bathing in a terraced mountain pool. At the restaurant above us, I hear the turn of a cement mixer.

It’s time to get back to VGB but this time, on Skip’s advice, we take another route that’s a little shorter which probably explains its popularity with locals. A dozen cars and pick-up trucks streak by us along the once green winding route, saddened now by a recent forest fire. We quickly close the car windows to avoid all the dust churned up by the passing cars. The usual Argentine élan disappears behind a wheel. Although I’ve not seen anger on the road like I have in Toronto, I have observed bad driving. In a charitable moment, I chalk it up to fear. An Argentine feels most comfortable in wide open spaces. On confining mountain roads, their instinct must be simply to get the hell out of there as fast as possible.

We’re off to Buenos Aires tonight on a 13-hour direct bus, executive class, which gives us fully reclining seats. It’s not our favourite mode of travel, but it’s cheap and we save a night’s hotel cost. Ciao. C. Moisse

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