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October showers bring November flowers

I still can't get used to this southern hemisphere thing. Did you know they don't even have the North Star down here? Who'd have thunk it?

I spent last Thursday in Bariloche hanging out with a Canadian friend, Jeff, and his crazy cousin Vanna, a local Argentine who drove us all around the neighboring area. This area of the country is called the Lake District and is astonishingly beautiful, with snow capped mountains in every direction and crystal blue lakes lying hither and thither in front of them; remarkably reminiscent of the Canadian Rockies.

It was Jeff's last night in town so he and I decided to go and get a drink from some local watering hole. In typical Argentine fashion, the place was absolutely dead at midnight but by 2:00 am it had started to fill up. At 2:30, around 40 high school students came out of nowhere and into this tiny den, taking it over and all 40 of them line dancing to Latina music as it pumped out over the stereo. Watching this odd event in bewilderment, we figured that we were either already too drunk or nowhere near drunk enough. Opting for the latter, I headed up to the bar and asked the bartender to make me a local drink. He agreed and asked me if I wanted a small or a large, pointing to a tiny cup that I figured must be the small one. I went for the large. 5 minutes later, out comes the bartender with a 4-litre bucket that he proceeded to fill with massive quantities of vodka, tequila, rum, grenadine, an entire bottle of champagne and two straws. (I will now attempt to describe the rest of the evening to the best of my recollection)

I woke up Friday afternoon around 2pm and wandered into downtown. Bariloche is a very pretty and very tourist-oriented one-stoplight town. I have been in quite a few miniscule, dusty little one-stoplight towns in my travels so far, the only difference being that Bariloche has well over 100,000 people living there. And still only one stoplight to orchestrate all their traffic. In other words, the town is in a constant state of absolute chaos in the streets with numerous near-accidents, lots of shouting matches and nobody having any clue who gets the right of way. The only rule there is that the pedestrian NEVER gets the right of way, nor the right to life if he dares cross into the road.

The town is also marked in its central plaza by a massive number of Saint Bernards with whom you can get your photo taken, the dogs decked out with barrels around their necks and with the Swiss flag painted on them (the barrels, not the dogs). Don't ask, I don't know. Perhaps they are there to save all the pedestrians who get run over.

On Saturday, I spent the day on a tour going with a couple of American friends, Evan and George, through and around more of the Lake District. During the tour I met and spoke with a very nice Argentine couple on their honeymoon (luna de miel); her name was Analia and his, of course, was Christian. They were having a very sweet, picturesque and romantic day until he pushed her aside, leant out quickly and puked out the window of the van we were traveling in. Ah, spring, when the stench of romance is in the air...

That night, Evan and I decided to go out on the town as it was Hallowe'en weekend. We had put our costumes together - he was Disco Jesus and I was The Flash - and made our way into downtown. Now, wearing costumes makes for a good laugh at most times, but combine wearing a costume for Hallowe'en with a culture that does not really celebrate the holiday and is not afraid to stare at those who do, and you have yourself a fun evening. We walked into the first bar and were, out of 200+ people, the only ones in costume whatsoever. The locals all stopped drinking and just stared at us - I swear I heard the record scratch and come to a complete stop. Eventually accepted enough to play foosball with the drunks, we hung around for a bit before going back to the streets. There, a big group of religious students fell in awe at Evan's costume, each of them fighting off the other, trying to give their free religious paraphenalia to him. Organized religion at a grassroots level...

Sunday, just went for a walk with Evan and George to see the sunset from a nearby vantage point atop a hill. We had made our way there a bit later than we had originally intended and had begun to realize that we weren't going to make it all the way up in time for the sunset if we continued along the main path. Instead, Evan led us up the steep side of the hill as we had decided to take the Road Less Travelled, to which I can only say this: Robert Frost, you stink. After a half hour of being spiked in the legs by thorns and dragging myself up an ever-steepening mountain, we found ourselves at the top where we saw a great view of the city, a pretty sunset and another equally quick and much less steep path that we could have taken. It was lovely, nevertheless.

Monday, I took a bus ride here to the coastal resort town of Mar Del Plata, hoping to catch some sun before I head up to Buenos Aires. Continuing my recent bout of good timing, I left sunny Bariloche and arrived here in mid-lightning storm with a heavy downpour that hasn't subisded in the 3 days since I have been here.

The advantage of sitting in a beach town in a rainstorm has given me added time to notice some of the differences between Argentina and the South American countries I have been in previously:

EXPENSE. Holy Snot, is this country expensive! For the price of just a night in a hostel and a lunch here, you could easily spend a whole day in Bolivia or buy an entire house in Peru. WITH a door!

MATE. Pronounced Mah-tay, not as in "To Mate" (which is also surprisingly popular throughout South America, considering how Catholic it is down here). Mate is a tea-like beverage the Argentines drink composed of a wooden cup filled to near-brim with herbs. Water is then poured from a thermos that the people will literally take cross-country with them, just for this drink. Next, someone will then take 4 or 5 sips of it through a metal straw called a "bombilla" before passing the cup on to a friend. The drink is far more social that actually tasty, but it is a lot of fun and a great way to talk to the locals.

NAMES OF SNACKS. In Argentina, many snack foods have different names than their exactly-similar American counterparts. For example, LAY'S are now FRENCHITAS, TRIDENT has become BELDENT, and CHEEZIES have turned into CHEEZITOS, which really just sounds too much like "Cheesy Toes" for me to consider eating.

BLONDES. Argentina actually has them. I haven't seen a significant percentage of natural blondes since being in Rio, nearly 5 months ago. Argentina also has a higher percentage of tall people, which really isn't of that much interest to me, except that it makes me feel safer when I go to the beach in the middle of a lightning storm. The blonde thing, not so much.

Despite the differences, I still do feel like I am in the same South America, though, as random nonsense is still prevalent. Last night I went to an all-you-can-eat barbeque place (VERY common in Argentina) and asked the guy working there how much it cost:

"Six-fifty," he told me. I figured that was a pretty good price and was about to sit down, until he continued. "And one dollar for cutlery."

I paused, thinking I had misunderstood the word. "Cutlery?" I asked, to be sure.

"Yes," he answered, "One dollar for cutlery."

"But don't you NEED cutlery to eat here?"

He nodded.

"But it costs extra?"

He nodded again.

"Can I bring my own cutlery?" I asked him.

He told me no.

"So, in other words, it costs seven-fifty to eat here, NOT six-fifty."

"Oh no," he assured me, "it costs only six-fifty. A very good price."

I wondered if later on he was going to try and sell me a used car, suspension and steering wheel extra.

Buenos Aires tomorrow...