Sunday, December 28, 2008

Argentina Wrap-Up by Carolann

Situated in a desert at the foot of the Andes, the people of Mendoza know how to turn a catastrophe into an opportunity. After an earthquake all but destroyed the colonial town, it was rebuilt a hundred years ago in a way that capitalized on its one abundant resource, water running off of the mountains. Based on the idea developed by the Incas that the runoff could be channeled to irrigate the town, and later the vineyards, an Italian engineer helped Mendoza rebuild its city around open gutters of fast running water. What is now Mendoza's central nervous system makes it possible for all of its inner streets to be lined with huge Plane trees throwing a shimmering green canopy over the city.

Without these overarching branches, a car's windshield wipers would melt onto the glass. Instead, Dan and I walk around this cool oasis on broad sidewalks onto which restaurants spill, and each block is staked out by patient, street dogs that the kitchens or clients keep well fed. If it takes a village to raise a child, the same can be said of street dogs in small town Argentina.

Café life means people watching. We're reminded that Mendoza is on the edge of that part of the country bordering Bolivia to the north and therefore you're more likely to see indigenous people here than in Buenos Aires or the central sierras. Dan and I are taking lunch open air. A stylish young business man in a charcoal black suit and open white shirt sits down with his friend at the next table. I sit back with my espresso doble and watched a short history of colonial South America.

A middle aged Indian man holding a wooden box falls onto his knees and starts cleaning the businessman's shoes. He applies a few fingers of polish to each shoe and rubs it in by hand, massaging the leather with swollen, tough fingers. The businessman carries on conversing with his companion while checking messages on his cell phone, an action that reveals rings on two fingers and a thick silver one on his thumb. On his wrist, he wears a gold watch with a heavy chinked band. He has hair like Jesus, but jewelry like Pilot. The Indian, probably a Bolivian, pulls large brushes out of his box like a magician and buffs hard and long to conjure up his own face in the shoe.

When he was finished, the business man pulls out a roll of bills, and under the expectant eye of the Indian, carefully thumbs through the deck until he reaches the bottom, from which he teases out a two peso note. The Indian takes the bill, bows his head and backs away. I turn my attention away at the press of a cold, wet nose on my leg and soulful eyes fixed on the scraps of my beef steak.

Buenos Aires
There's a lot of talk about how dangerous the city has become since its financial crisis six years ago. Of course I don't want to be mugged so I'm not ignoring the advice that's offered, but I really don't get the paranoia. Dan and I take the bus everywhere (40 cents beats a $12 taxi during daylight hours). I keep larger cash in a pocket sewed into my skirt and smaller cash for quick access in zipper pockets. My purse stays in my lap at restaurants, not flung over a chair back. Dan and I watch each other's back on trains and subway. We use a taxi after dark. I'd do the same in Bangkok, Lima, Hong Kong, Montreal or Chicago.

One tourist site that called for a return visit was the Recoleta Cemetery. Although when you've seen one pillared, gated, carved white marble, above-ground tomb, you might think you've seen a thousand. And there is a thousand; it's the Rosedale, Mount Royal burb of the dead, the likes of Eva Duarte Peron. But for me, it's the land of the living, in the form of dozens of resident cats. Slender cats in a dark corner; tabbies curled behind an angel; a calico sleeping beside a marble fountain. Armed with this knowledge from our last visit five years go, I returned with treats.

For the dog lover, Buenos Aires offers a remarkable site - professional dog walkers. With as many as 30 dogs in tow, Cesar Milan would be proud of these pack leaders. Each morning, the professionals march and scoop their way along the avenues of Recoleta, stopping at flower kiosks where the whole troupe might be given a bucket of water. Some specialize in puppies, others toy breeds, others mix it up with large and bite-size dogs, but the effect is the same. They're in control.

The Zone
It took us about a week to get in the "zone". That means to adjust our internal clock in a way that has nothing to do with time changes and everything to do with lifestyle change. Our breakfasts consist of sweet buns and coffee; lunch begins at 2:00 and we pass away the siesta hours with our chatty friends, carne and Malbec Reserva, the latter costing as little as $11 a bottle in a lovely neighborhood bistro.

Unless you like to eat alone in restaurants, dinner begins at 10:00 when our friends insist on joining us once more, this time bringing along cousin Flan with or without dulce de leche. Either Argentines are all on their way to being overweight, functioning alcoholics, or it's just us. The jury's out.

We've found, however, that the way to balance all this feasting is to sweat it out on the streets. Averaging 30 degrees plus, we're covering several kilometers around town each day, speed walking between shady spots, taking refreshment in aqua con gas, either drinking it, or throwing it in each others face.

Back to Where it Started
It's been five weeks now from the time we landed in Santiago Chile on the other side of the Andes. I reflect back on those days that now seem so long ago.

It was almost to the day five years ago when we visited Santiago in 2003. This time we arrived during daylight. While still in the air, I delayed raising the blind as pieces of white light tracing its edge hurt my eyes after a fitful sleep on the eleven hour flight. But with the happy news that we would be landing within half an hour, I opened the blind and there they were, the Andes, a slim band of snow streamed mountains proud against a blue sky, arching the parched bowl of dust that would be Santiago. Entering the airport I had a sense of homecoming, probably because a traveler's home is where the bed is and five years ago, Dan and I had spent one night stretched out on a pitted metal bench in the departure lounge at this airport in between connecting flights.

Looking purposeful in our march to the airport bus that would take us downtown for about $3.00, we fell into our usual travel step style to maximize safety - look like you know where you're going, be kind but dismissive to touts, and use a few short phrases in Spanish so you sound like somebody's savvy Canadian relative.

It's about a half hour ride to town. Small vineyards are cultivated up to the highway on one side and butt up to expanding subdivisions on the other side. It's unfortunate that even here suburban sprawl is in the same push-pull relationship with agriculture as it is at home. I strip off another layer of clothing. It's a sunny 24 degrees. The fragrant air of an urbanized desert environment reminds me of Los Angeles on good days although the highways are bumpier, the housing grimmer, and an occasional smashed up, burnt out bus lies abandoned in a field. But one big difference between this and southern California are the Andes. Snowy peaks in the sky, more apparition than mountain, melt into the mildly toxic urban haze which might explain the local preference for herbal teas tasting like cough drops.

There's nothing like having friends of friends living in foreign countries. For the next three days, we're blessed with Chilean hospitality, a personal orientation to the international bus station, and as much goodwill as can be communicated in Spanglish between people cut from the same cloth, but woven differently.

Five weeks later, another country, two time changes, and one outer ear infection on the mend, we're going home for Christmas. There's more to tell and much more to experience here, but I have to run and take my next dose of pain killer. We're leaving Wednesday night.

Feliz Navidad.


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