Sunday, March 18, 2007

PATAGONIA: Bariloche (Argentinian mail, the Grilled Cheese Incident)...and how I ended up in El Bolson

After nearly a week in Buenos Aires, I decided to head out to Argentinian Patagonia. Bariloche is a touristy ski town bordering Lago Nahuel Huapi. I arrived by overnight bus (20 hr ride, surprisingly comfortable and empty) and found a room at 1004, a 10th floor hostel overlooking the lake that a Dutch woman Laila I met on the bus had heard about. Here´s the view from the hostel:

It turns out that Bariloche manufactures a LOT of chocolate (I wasn´t aware that Argentina had a spot famous for chocolate). These two massive chocolate stores were cattycornered on the same block--and there are dozens of them throughout the town:

The following day, Laila and I took a 50km bike ride along the lake (my ass was still sore two days later). Here we are on the ¨beach¨

Friday I did not much, but Saturday was wonderful.

Argentinian Mail
Well, it started out less than wonderful. After a month, I was finally ready to send my first package home to mom--significantly lightening my load. I had diligently checked the post office hours and discovered that surprisingly they were open on Saturday from 9-1. I woke up, ate some watermelon, and packed up my Spanish textbook, the 4 books I´d completed on the trip thus far, and other sundry items. Carrying the fairly heavy back to the post office I was excited to get the weight literally off my shoulders.

After waiting on line for about 15 minutes, I approached the counter with my plastic bag filled with heavy stuff and said ¨Me gustaria mander este a los Estados Unidos por el precio mas barato.¨ The guy at the counter grabbed my bag, stepped back 10 feet to a scale and weighed it. He then came back and told me that my bag weighed 3kg and that I was only permitted to send up to 2kg on Saturdays (and that would cost me 1/3 more than usual). Packages heavier than 2kgs may only be sent on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

I looked at him utterly dumbfounded. This wasn´t some ramshackle private company, it was the official Argentian post office. It would be like walking into the post office at home and being told you can only mail that letter on alternate Wednesdays.

Regaining my wits, I asked if I could leave the package today and have it sent out on Monday. That, of course, was not possible. I left the post office--package in hand--defeated but amused. I would have to lug the extra weight to Calafate (so I thought...more on that later) and pay even more to ship it from there. But, if this was the worst of the adversities I´d face on this trip all would be well...

UPDATE: I just tried to mail the package from El Bolson on a Monday, but from here one is not permitted to mail more than 2kg any day of the week. So, I carry my burden forward...

Villa Angustura
I took a bus to a small town about 1.5 hrs from Bariloche called Villa Angustura. My new friend Natalia Torres from Buenos Aires had recommended it. I arrived at about 3:30 and did a loop around the main street of the town--a quaint little place that had the look of a ski resort with lots of log framed buildings.

Here´s the only picture I took that day:

By that time I was quite hungry, so decided to sit in the sun at a nice cafe that served waffles. I grabbed a table, but saw a woman who looked approximately my age sitting alone at the next table eating an ice cream and reading a newspaper. I figured, what the hell, and approached her table and said ¨Hola, me llamo Adam y soy de Nueva York. Te gustaria hablar conmigo?¨

She was friendly, introduced herself as Luciana and seemed happy to talk. She was born in Spain to Argentinian parents who are engineers and is studying in Mendoza. She completed a degree in physiology but doesn´t really like it so is now studying psychology. We ended up sitting at the cafe for the next 3 hours. While I enjoyed a waffle with chocolate sauce and ducle de leche (a sweet caramel-like spread they love here), we talked in Spanish about everything from our respective lives and families; to the difference between men in Spain (very shy and reserved; the women have to approach them) and Argentina (won´t take no for an answer); to the different styles of education in Spain and Argentina (surprisingly, Argentina has better medical and engineering schools b/c they feature more practical experience); to the nature of chemistry, love and marriage. She gave me her email and now I have a friend when I go to Mendoza.

I caught the 8pm bus back to Bariloche positively elated. It wasn´t that Luciana and I had a particularly strong chemical connection (the conversation was somewhat flirtatious, but not outwardly so). It was that I had a) shown up in a random city with nothing planned and made a new friend just by showing some initiative; and b) had managed to converse effectively, and beyond the surface, in Spanish for 3 hours.

The first part was particularly timely because I had been thinking a lot over the past few days about the delicate balance between being proactive and letting life come to you that traveling alone entails. I´d been spending a lot of time alone over the past few days and while I didn´t mind my own company I was wondering whether I needed to be more proactive and take more risks in putting myself out to strangers. My experience with Luciana confirmed that I could strike the right balance.

The Grilled Cheese Incident
When I arrived back at the hostel, the evening´s St. Patrick´s Day party was already in full swing. Everyone had made a dish from their home country and people were drinking and even dancing under a disco ball. I had bought materials for garlic grilled cheese which I thought would make a tasty and inexpensive snack for a lot of people (and was pretty American to the core). But when I arrive there was already a ton of food out and it didn´t seem necessary to start cooking more.

Plus, I thought that people would appreciate a hot, tasty grilled cheese even more AFTER they returned from the bar that night. After planning to do some late-night cooking, I remembered that the hostel kitchen was officially closed after midnight. I approached Javier, the preternaturally calm owner with Jesus-like long hair and beard, and asked if he could make an exception and allow me to cook grilled cheeses for everyone late that night. At first, he resisted, explaining that they clean the kitchen every night and that there were rooms right near and the noise would disturb guests. But after I explained that I had all these materials and was leaving on an early flight the next morning, he gave me a wink and said that if I promised to be very quiet and clean up after myself I could cook. I thanked him profusely and left for the local Irish bar happy.

Here´s a picture of our crowd out at the bar (I actually think this is from Thurs night, but it´s basically the same people at the same bar):

At about 3am after another 3 beers, a shot of tequilla, and some dancing to a rapid-fire mix of American hits, I grew tired of the bar and decided it would be more fun to head back and start prepping the grilled cheeses, thereby allowing me to surprise every incoming guest with a fresh, hot sandwich as they walked in the door. When I got back, I quickly found a partner in crime in an affable Canadian fellow (the guy to my right in the picture above) and we got to work cutting garlic.

That´s when my whole trip took a sudden turn downhill.

Despite Javier´s earlier approval, the women cleaning the kitchen appeared obviously distraught at the prospect of us using it after they were done. Javier began a slow back-peddle, starting at restricting what we could use and eventually closing the door on the project all together. Recognizing that I was in his house and asking for an exception to the rules (and being a lobbyist knowing that one almost always catches more flies with honey) I was being exceedingly flexible and polite, proposing simple new solutions to every hurdle he erected. But, I was drunk and pissed. Here I was desperately trying to hold up my end of the regional cooking bargin and spread good vibes at the hostel by giving out grilled cheese (I wasn´t even hungry) and this seemingly ultra-chill hostel owner was getting dogmatic on my ass and shutting me down. (Grilled cheese can be cooked very quietly using minimal tools, so I thought the exception wasn´t unreasonable.)

Worse, cooking grilled cheese and greeting incoming partiers was my plan for staying up all night and catching the 6:40 am bus to the airport to catch my flight to Calefate to see the glaciers. Now, I was exceedingly annoyed and didn´t want to go back to the bar. So I double checked my cell phone alarm and plopped into bed to catch about 2.5 hours of sleep before I had to wake up for my flight.

I woke up at 8:45--30 minutes after I was supposed to be at the airport.

I have no idea if my alarm went off and I slept soundly through it or what (I checked again and it was definitely set); but the bottom line is that I didn´t wake up. I jumped out of bed and trudged to the local airline office to see if I could change my ticket. They were, of course, closed on Sunday. I finally reached them on the phone and was told that there was only one flight per week from Bariloche to Calafate--the one I had just missed. Ironically, my flight back from Calefate to Buenos Aires was now leaving before I could get to Calefate to catch it. For some reason the guy was not able to change my flight on the phone.

El Bolson
I decided to make lemonade and hop a bus to El Bolson, a hippie-ish town about 3hrs south of Bariloche where my friend Olivia had worked on a farm that she highly recommended. I had discovered her advice after I had booked my flight to Calefate so I was planning on hitting El Bolson from the Chile side after I returned to BA and crossed over to Santiago. But now I´d go directly there, spend a few days and then head back up to BA by bus. Hopefully I´ll be able to change my ticket to a round trip from BA to Calafate and still see the glacier next week.

I arrived in El Bolson at about 2pm today exhausted from only a few hours sleep, a developing sore throat (serves me right, I smoked 2 cigarettes two nights ago, and like clockwork...), and no plan. I didn´t want to go to the farm right away b/c I wasn´t feeling well and wanted to show up ready to work. I trudged around town with my pack looking for a hostel. The town was almost entirely shut down--because it is Sunday, because many restaurants and stores close for siesta in the afternoon, and because it is past peak summer season. And, sure enough, it started to rain.

Well, the rain only lasted a few minutes, I eventually found a cheap room, I got some much needed sleep, feel a bit better, and I´m hoping they have room for me at the farm tomorrow. Perhaps this was all a blessing in disguise and I owe Javier a thank you for squashing my butter-soaked grilled cheese fantasies--or perhaps it just sucks that I missed my flight.

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