Last autumn I spent part an afternoon rolling down a grassy hill with my 3- and 5-year-old neices in Green Bay. I think it was their first time, and they loved it, so we took turns, over and over again pushing eachother at the top, arms tucked in close and eyes shut tight, hoping we´d end up somewhere near the big pile of leaves we´d staked out below as our landing pad. Sometimes we made it. Other times we veered off course, gaining momentum with each revolution, and the whole thing was a bit bumpier and disorienting than we´d planned. Always we stood up covered in green grass stains and mud, leaves and twigs sticking out of our wild hair, dizzy and surprised–and laughing!–and ready to give it another go.
Life since the last Episode has been something like that.
Argentina: Life in Magical Real
After a night and a day in La Paz, where the highlights included drinking with the bus station employees and checking out the Mercado de Brujas, the Witch´s Market, a stretch of cobblestone street where women work stands and small shops selling home-made and pre-packaged potions, cure-alls, and powders that promise to remedy everything from financial debt to a lacking love life, or ward off bad luck with a perfume or potpourri (or any variety of dried toad dusted with glitter, or dried llama fetus on a string), I hopped an overnight bus for Argentina.
The bus itself was an adventure, in the form of 14 hours of general discomfort and fearing for my life (and the many other lives that packed the seats and aisle of the rickety, overcrowded bus). Right before boarding, I was chatting with a guy who told me stories of about five recent instances of Bolivian buses crashing, tipping, and going over cliffs, so I was nearly clutching the Peruvian guy next to me as we lurched back and forth, weaving through mountains and, I was sure, grazing the edges of a steep cliff edge or two while narrowly avoiding several head-on crashes. People sat on suitcases in the aisle. Babies cried, some held by strangers while their rightful owners stood in the aisle clutching the overhead compartments for support. Those of us who had seats weren´t so much better off: the majority were broken, so we would go from sleeping position to sitting, and vice versa, with every bump. Everyone shivered under blankets, hats, mittens and more, trying to ward off the freezing night temperatures (again, I almost snuggled up to the Peruvian guy next to me, for warmth this time).
After a few hours, I realized that the bumpy road was bad news for my already over-active Vodicka bladder. The bus had periodically been making short, unannounced stops along the way, and I had seen people file off and then get back on, so the next time we stopped, I followed about 6 other people off. “¿Baños?” I asked the driver before deboarding. “¡Corre!” he replied, run! So I ran, but all I could see was a wide field behind a stretch of about 15 little shack-huts, some without doors and none of which resembled a public bathroom. I recognized a guy from the bus, running as if he knew where he was going. I was on his heels as he rounded the corner of the last hut in the row, unzipped his pants and started peeing in the field. This was no time to be shy (and let´s face it–when it comes to public peeing in a dire situation, i´m usually not); I leaned up against the back of a hut, peed as fast as I could, pulled my pants up and ran while the guy still had his back to me. When I rounded the corner, I saw the bus, door shut, driving away. I ran after it with arms waving, and a few other stragglers following behind, and boarded while the thing was in drive.
After a sleepless night, I walked a delirious half-mile from Bolivia to Argentina, my second Bolivian border in 48 hours. Even before crossing the border I could tell Argentina was going to be a different world than that of Peru and Bolivia. An easier one, for a gringa. Suddenly, the immigration process no longer consisted of a body search, suspicious looks, and stern questioning about what I was doing in their country, why, and for how long. Here, as soon as the guys saw “The United States of America” glittering in gold across the front of my passport, they smiled, flipped it open just to take a look at my picture and say “Anna Dominica, what a pretty name!” or “Wisconsin, where is that? How lovely it must be!” A smile. A stamp. And I was on my way.
The landscape, too, changed almost immediately before me. Back on another bus, I watched as the terrain went from the bone-dry browns of the Bolivian sierra to pink, mossy mountains (and some green, purple, and orange), and lush, leafy green of the Argentinian Andes. Beautifully kept ranches, brightly painted houses, men on horseback. I was used to the sort of disordered, haphazard look of Peru´s urban centers and sprawling communities, where many of the houses stand unfinished, for two basic reasons, from what I was able to gather: one, families leave the roofs of their houses unfinished because when their sons marry, they build a new level onto the home where they will live with their new wives. If there are three sons, that will be three floors, and if those sons have sons of their own, the house will continue to rise (daughters move in with their husbands´family). The second reason is that the government doesn´t charge property tax for houses that are technichally in the building stage, a compromise made for the people living in poverty. This means that houses in the outskirts or poor urban centers are almost always missing a wall, a door, or some other essential part, and while they´re supposedly “in the works,” they will forever be missing a wall or a door or other essential part. So a home is unfinished because it is full of hope or it has none.
In contrast, Argentina, with its reason and order, complete homes, structured stone walls, is surprising, and in a way, refreshing. I can´t help feeling more at home around the structure–it is, after all, how we estadounidenses are built.
I´d tentatively planned on making the small town of Cafayate the next break in my cross-continental bus adventure, which would mean stopping briefly in the larger town of Salta and booking a ticket on the next bus heading south with a stopover. Naturally, the one company that sent buses to Cafayate was on strike: “come back tomorrow!” they told me at the info booth.
So I spent my first night in Salta, sipping wine in the main plaza and marvelling at the europeanness of it all. Salta is a small city in northern Argentina that is modern in a way I hadn´t seen in a while–bustling streets filled with shopping centers, casinos, street vendors and neon lights, and women dressing up on each other–but strangely outdated in terms of style and technology. Everyone´s flashing outdated goods and 80s fashions. Weird. I drank more of the red wine that had been cheaper by the bottle than the glass, headed back to Tierra Oculta hostel, which has a great rooftop bar, shared drinks and stories with some fellow travelers, and after the previous night´s bus ride, slept gratefully in a dorm room top bunk.
The next morning, I packed up and went back to the bus station. Sill no bus services to Cafayate. I was told that there might be local city buses running there, because of the strike, so I left the station planning to wait at the bus stop until I found a bus. It could be hours. As I was about to reach the bus stop, a moustached cab driver called to me from a group of cabbies (also moustached) that were smoking and chatting under a tree across the street, waiting for customers: “¿Cafayate?”
“¡Si!” I replied! Yeah, how much?
Good, he said. 18 pesos (same as the bus). Wait here. We need to find 3 more people.
So one minute it seems like a curse that the one bus that runs to your next destination is on strike, but the the next thing you know, you´re in a taxi, faster and more comfortable, with a driver that stops so you can take pictures and makes sure you´re catching all the sights along the way. And what a drive! Someday I will rent a car and drive this stretch of northern Argentina at my leisure: mountains that nature took a paintbrush to, and molded into shapes of the most whimsical kind (castles, an ampitheater complete with a lone musician, a frog, and more). And after days of bussing, two days in the town of Cafayate were the equivalent of a 48 hour massage. You can´t really beat a small town that´s vacant of pretty much everything but wine and art. And El Hospedaje, more a $5 a night retreat than a hostel, was all serenity with a sunny patio overgrowing with flowers, a pool out back with lawn chairs for sunning and wide chairs for lounging, and café con leche and pastries at breakfasttime. I shared a room with two fellow independent female travellers (finally!). Victoria, a 27-year old fashion designer from Buenos Aires, and I toured a goat cheese farm, ate lots of fruit by the pool, sampled wines from the local vineyards, and dragged ourselves unwillingly to the bus station when it was time to go.
Two days later (had to make an unplanned stop in Tucumán, 6 hours south, when buses to Bs. As. were uncharacteristically full), muscles atrophying and butt permanently molded to fit the 120-degree angle of the semi-cama reclining bus seat, I arrived in Buenos Aires. What followed was a 5-day fling with one of my new favorite cities–an affair that I would love to see blossom into something more serious someday when there´s room in my life for commitment (this is my only consolation when leaving place after place that I fall for, didn´t get to explore fully, or missed something major: I´m coming back! I convince myself).
Buenos Aires is as European and modern as they say, with several pieces of architecture straight out of Paris, Soho-inspired streets, lanterned plazas reminiscent of Italy or Spain, all to the tune of a genuine Latin American vibe that keeps it from feeling like imitation. There´s a great national pride that has inspired some great jokes, and as far as I can tell, is justifiable.
Q. How can you tell you pick an Argentinian spy from the crowd?
A. By his “I am the greatest spy in the world!” t-shirt.
A guy walks up to an Argentinian and asks for a light. The Argentinian pats his chest pockets, his butt pockets, and his front pockets. “No,” he replies, a little surprised, “but I have a fucking amazing body!”
You may remember Brian from previously published blogs, the good friend from home who I booked it to B.A. to meet. In case you need a refresher, let me quote an email from the man himself:
“Well, in my life I have never been important enough to
be portrayed as a pathetic parade-rainer to an
audience of 51 people, but thanks to Anna Dominica
Vodicka that long-standing dream has finally come
true. And I quote:
1) “No, really, if I weren´t a very dedicated friend,
I would probably leave Brian to camp Patagonia by
himself, and I´d live here blissfully until the end of
2) “My plan was to immediately purchase a ticket to
Sucre or Potosí, and take off tonight, since I´ve got
to meet Brian in under a week.”
This rise to superstardom was so quick! I feel
unprepared for the limelight into which you so
selflessly have cast me!
I was kinda waiting for the conclusion of the blog to
read “hopefully Brian gets hit by a bus tomorrow, so I
won’t have to even make this decision.”
Or “Brian fits into my future plans as gracefully as a
turd fits into a turkey sandwich.”
Or “Remember the Holocaust? Brian did that.” ”
…I could go on, but you get the idea. My 6-week travel partner, in his own words
Brian made it to Buenos Aires at 3 a.m. the day after I did. His luggage did not. While it made for some inevitable airline-induced anxiety, TACA airlines not only settled the matter kindly and efficiently, but they also unexpectedly delivered a $50 travel voucher to our door a few days later [this is a plug for TACA airlines...down with LAN!!!].
We were lucky enough to spend the week with Sisa and Steve, newlyweds from the East Coast who were on the 5th month of their honeymoon when I met them in Peru, and who had offered up the extra bedroom in the beautiful little apartment they were renting in Bs. As. for the month of March. The four of us had a blast bombing around the city, taking in free tango and art exhibitions, concerts (Divas del Rock! on National Women´s Day–the divas weren´t so hot, but Sisa and I took the liberty of celebrating our fabulous womanhood by shopping guilt-free and often), preparing several homemade fresh gnocchi and wine dinners, making llama jokes, and staying up past 12 for the first time in a while.
The day before we left Bs. As., in or around the bus station where Bri and I had gone to buy our tickets south, my wallet was lost. Or stolen. Still not sure what happened, but it was gone. After I shed a few tears (I only lost about US$100 and my ATM card, which I cancelled immediately. The tears were mostly over a few sentimental things I´d been carrying around for years: family contact info, a book list, a black and white photo booth picture of me and Bethye circa 1998, with dinosaurs in the background. Damn, I loved that picture.) Luckily Brian was there to make fun of me and offer me some consolation, and to serve as my sugar daddy for the following weeks until Bank of America could come through with a replacement card.
Losing my wallet meant a trip to the police station, where I spent an unnecessarily long time answering all-too-personal questions for an overconfident young officer. He had me sit right away, then proceeded to deal with everyone else that walked through the door as they came in. I could see a few other officers lounging around joking and drinking coffee in the back room. This guy seemed to be multi-tasking while drawing up a very important and thorough document for me, but the more he joked, the more skeptical I became. “Full name? Address? Birthdate? And the most important question: single or married? Single? Ahh…and what do you think of Argentinian men?” An hour and a half later, I stood at the door holding an “official” document that pretty much listed my contact info and the details of my lost wallet in a simple paragraph that should have taken five minutes to compose.
“And you´ll let me know if you hear anything?” I asked. “Yeah, yeah, sure,” he said with a wave, “do you want to go dancing tonight?” I skipped a night on the town with a model member of the Argentinian police force, and instead, Brian and I hopped on a bus headed south for Patagonia.
Patagonia: Why I am a Blog Slacker
I write this section from Mendoza, Argentina, no longer tumbling south and instead making my way north and east, back to Buenos Aires after several weeks in mostly Argentinian Patagonia, where internet is less accessible, more expensive, and generally unappealing compared to the towering mountain passes, the endless winding trails, the immense icy blue glaciers, the autumn beeches changing silver, yellow, red; powdery glacial lakes, crashing waterfalls, forests of cinnamon-bark Arrayanian trees, and white-capped, cloud-wrapped volcanoes (not to mention cold local brews, guitar sessions at quiet campsites, and thoroughly entertaining, unexpected travel companions).
Brian and I went from from Puerto Madryn–a Miami-like port for cruise ships and souvenir hunters, gateway to the penguins and whales of Peninsula Valdèz–to Gaudìn–a tiny Welsh village where all the action is at the afternoon teahouses (platefulls of cakes and bottomless pots of black tea) and a my new happy place, an outdoor museum of sorts called Desafìo (an adorable white-haired man retired and turned his backyard into a magical creative masterpiece, a dreamworld of trash art and poetry. Imagination and whimsy turned hundreds of old beer cans, milk cartons, household appliances, and a hundred other ordinary things we all ignore on a daily basis, into profoundly moving, at times ethereally beautiful sculptures and works of art that pepper this totally inspiring artistic playground)–to Rìo Gallegos–where we stayed in a pink hostel, ate pizza, and changed our plan to go to the world´s southernmost city of Ushuaia (time and money reasons)–to El Calafate–the Vale of Argentinian Patagonia, constructed entirely for tourists that flooded it in order to get to the Perito Moreno Glacier. Here we met a fantastically hilarious pair from Davis, CA, and the last honest lawyer in Atlanta, GA, three who became our off-and-on travel partners for the upcoming weeks, and I got Food Poisoning Bout #2, which made me seriously contemplate going vegetarian for the first time in my life. We celebrated Brian´s 24th birthday with a plateful of alfajores (the most delicious cookies on the planet, with dulce de leche in the middle and chocolate all around), took in the enormous rumbly wonder that is the Perito Moreno Glacier (the only one in the world that´s actively advancing, and had been on internation news only 2 days earlier for some massive movement)–to El Chaltèn, a small town filled with trailer park charm and tourist destination dreams. This dirt-road town was our base for multi-day treks to Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy, awesome peaks that rise above cloudy blue-green glacial waters and forests of twisted beech trees. (These trees bear witness to the harsh, sometimes brutal climate: they look like they went down fighting, one dried up and tangled round the throat of another, violently twisted and mangled from battle, or from love; branches bent into submission, roots ripped from the soil and begging for something to hold on to. Survival in Patagonia.) The towering peaks are usually visible from the town of El Chalten, but were completely hidden from sight during our first two days there, when downpour and whipping winds kept us inside playing lots of cards and drinking instant cocoa, or 40s, at the Hem Herhu hostel (highly recommended! it means “the soul” in some indigenous language, the helpful owner sports dreads and a “pensar en verde” tshirt every day and listens to lots of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Nick Cave, and good 80s) and the cozy local brewpub. We loved the town, especially for moments like one at the local pastry shop, where the lady behind the counter was so excited by Brian`s travel guitar that she gathered the whole place together to clap off-beat to some strumming, and brought out a plateful of pastries for “el musico!” and friends, or the time we formed a band in the corner of a local restaurant and entertained (or drove away) fellow diners with an impromptu version of Stand by Me, and other standards (finally I got to be the tambourine girl I´ve always dreamed of becoming!).
After many perfect days of hiking and camping, we hopped a flight north to Bariloche (we almost died coming in for a landing through crazy winds), and after reuniting with our new friends and doing one of the most intense hikes of my life, at one point crossing two mountain passes in one day, some parts icy steep trail, others loose rock, others 100% steep scree that you could practically ski down on foot, but was like torture on the way up–with packs and hot sun. After getting back to town and testing some of the famous local chocolate shops (the entire main street is filled with them), Brian and I decided to rent a car for a week, which gave us the chance to see towns from El Bolson–about 2 hours south, where we camped out with friends at our favorite new brewery, makers of the regionally famous cerveza El Bolson, where beers vary from wheat, bock, and winter ales to cherry, raspberry, or spicy aji–to Parque Nacional Lanin further north, and over the Chilean border to more national parks and volcanoes in the Lakes Region.
This brief sum-up of the last 6 weeks hardly does it justice, but how could I? It has certainly been a lot more destination travel, more meeting up with gringos, speaking English, visiting incredible sites (and paying for them) than I`m used to. Also more sleeping on mats, freezing under a not-warm-enough sleeping bag, and eating quick-cook pasta and oatmeal out of a camp stove than I`m used to. This has been different, but so good. Experiencing these places that will change so dramatically in the very near future, with the invasion of real estate, technologies, entrepreneurs, pavement. The word about Patagonia began to spread more than a century ago, but while some of the cities are all Tahoe, younger than I am and built strictly for tourists with dollars, much of the place still feels like barren frontier, calling to mind stories of our own Wild West–stick a stake in the ground and claim an acre as your own. Construction goes on from dawn till dusk; we`d disappear into the woods for a few days and a town would miraculously sprout new apartments for rent, a new commercial building for sale. And while there´s no getting around the climate–tourists used to the comforts of cruiseships and tropical beaches won´t welcome the unpredictable Patagonian winds, rain, and temperatures that could dissolve into blue skies and sunshine–and back again!–in a matter of minutes. But an adventurous spirit could bear with it. And with easier access and cushier accommodations on the horizon, droves of them undoubtedly will. Southern Patagonia will be dramatically different ten years from now; it was lovely to be a part of the now, a privelege, a little frightening to see the budding stages of progress.
Unbelievably, a few weeks to go. Back through Bolivia, where the attractions all hint at something darker, heavier, a little more ominous: visit the barren salt flats! Ride the most dangerous highway in the world! Descend into the Potosi mines and bring a gift (a Coca Cola, a pack of gum, cigarettes) to the men who work in the dark and breathe the underground. Then Peru. And then Home.