Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hard to Believe

Today was hard to believe. The weather finally broke and I was able to try a trip into the hills:

 I rented a motorcycle from a guy who helps organize the local stage of the Dakar Rally. The bike wasn't very powerful... a 250 with tall gears... but I had fun learning the rules of Argentine driving while swimming upstream at dawn against the morning traffic. Once out, I headed towards the hills.
 What you see in these pictures are the foothills of the Andes.
 As I got progressively lost in the mountains on curvy roads absent of other vehicles, I finally came to a random gate in the road with a police officer saying I couldn't go any further, so I turned around and started heading towards my actual goal for the day: Valle de Uco sur, which is the most up-and-coming wine district on the continent.
 This winery and vineyard, Salentein, is located in the Valle de Uco sur micro-climate, and it lies at 5000ft at the very feet of the Andes. If the clouds weren't present there would be a large view of the 22,000ft Tupungato volcano.
 On my way to the winery I was stopped by the Argentine police (Patagonian roads are amazing)... After a nice chat with the officer about how weird U.S. driving licenses look, I was sent on my way without a fine, but a warning to look out for goats crossing the road... I think the goat warning was much more effective than a fine ever could have been.

After three hours slid by without my noticing, I arrived at the vineyard and bumped my way up the road to the winery. I didn't have time to do a full tour, unfortunately, so I just did some tasting. I had the entire tasting room to myself, the Andes surrounding the view. This assortment of Malbecs in this picture cost about $7. The wine on the far left is the "Primus" and normally costs about $70 just to taste, but after talking for a while with the host he remembered he had an opened bottle and he let me taste it for free. I've never had wine that expensive before, and it was quite the treat. I doubt I'll ever be able to afford wine like that in the States, so I savored every last drop. It was so Meanwhile, the chef who seemed to be bored, kept bringing me fantastic hors d'oeuvres. All said and done, this was the most value I think is possible to squeeze out of $7.
 I realized my 220km gas tank was empty when I entered the last town for quite some time before Mendoza, so after searching for a while, I found the only gas station. I was puzzled by the line that had formed out on the street leading from the station, but there were no cars at the pumps so I figured they must be waiting for an oil change or something, and pulled up to the pump. I waited for quite some time for an attendant to come out, because the machines were obviously too complicated to be self-serve, but an attendant never came. Finally the man in the car first in the lineup on the street walked over to me and introduced himself, very politely, and then asked if I was a foreigner. It turns out I had cut a line that was over 2km long, and that they were waiting for the town's first delivery of gas. I asked how long it would be until I could fill up, and he said it could be a couple days! Yikes. After talking more though, he offered to let me go in front of him so that I could maybe get back to Mendoza before the next day. I was thrilled, and found out that the gas tanker was due to arrive in only three hours. I sat for about two of those hours, eating junk food and reading, and then I got bored so I went and started talking with one of the attendants. We got talking about how foreign the idea of not having gas is to Americans. All of the sudden he leaned over a whispered to me that he had a secret store of gas that he could sell to me so I could avoid the mob scene once the tanker arrived. I leaped at the opportunity. It was all very clandestine; I rolled the bike into a little back alley where he pulled out a milk jug covered in a black plastic bag, and he poured the jug into my bike. $5 later and a ton of thankyous, I was off back on my way to Mendoza. It occurred to me while I was in the middle of the huge stretch of road that is so typical of the Patagonian steppe--perfectly strait until its vanishing point--that the gas could have been sub-par or even diesel and that I would be stuck in the middle of the steppe with a dead bike and no food. Right then a dust storm from hell blew me clear off the road into the sage brush at 130kmh. Luckily the sage brush don't really mind being run over, and I just corrected back onto the road, trying to see despite the insane winds. ---(In terms of wind in the world, there are three types: No wind, Wind, and Patagonia.)--- What can you do but motor on, though? So I did, and right as the sun was setting Mendoza came into view. By some miracle I found my way back through the city to the parking garage where I had rented the bike, and the journey ended.

It all seems kind of surreal. I've never had anything in a foreign country really work properly, but today it seemed like there was some unseen hand guiding my journey. Despite situations where I would normally have felt exposed, been terrified, or been ripped off, I found myself being ambivalent to adversity, stupidly lucky, and like I had some sort of "people charm" that made them want to do nice things for me.
*As a disclaimer to my driving responsibility: I did not drink all of the wine given to me and consumed well under one glass in total. I take the dangers of motorcycling pretty seriously, and even drinking one glass of wine is more than I would have drank before riding a motorcycle in normal circumstances. 

Friday, June 8, 2012


I've been in Mendoza for a week now, and really haven't had an adventure yet! Tomorrow that will change as I am trying to get out to the Valle de Uco sur to scope out the highest altitude vineyards which are producing the best wines right now. This area is comparable to Napa valley many decades ago, and the only tours start directly from Mendoza and cost serious money. The land is big out there and walking or even biking isn't feasible, so I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I will figure that out later. I think the strategy is to get myself stuck, and then problem-solve my way out of it.

But I will post about that later. What is Mendoza like? I was surprised to find that it has a Holland-ish vibe to it. Not in the architectural manner of Bariloche, but in the highly homogenous, friendly, and socialist population. The presence of government innovation is abundant, in the manner of hydrating the abundant street flora via a system I can't really describe, the super-wide sidewalks, and in the soviet-era buses which seem to be the arteries of the public transportation system despite being of obvious Soviet construction (about to fall apart). It's obvious when the people of a municipality pay their government for more services in place of marketizing those services because the government has the capacity to make unprecedented alterations to the physical city, whereas private solutions must utilize the existing infrastructure. My communist tendencies aside, this makes for a unique aesthetic experience. I keep my wallet and phone in my back pockets here, return smiles, and feel entirely at ease. Mendoza's culture is one which prioritizes the enjoyment of one's daily life over, for instance, efficient city planning, practical business hours, and pragmatism in general. It's below freezing every morning but palm trees have been planted everywhere. The siesta culture here is stronger even than in Guatemala, and shops close at 1pm not to open again until 9pm. If you venture out during the siesta period the only people you will see are the young couples who didn't quite make it back to their homes, and instead settled for a bench to kiss on. If you are eating a snack of croissants in a coffee shop and start talking with the waitress, you'll get a couple hours worth of conversation and at least one free coffee. The roads each have at least three names, and the system of city blocks seems entirely forgotten. It's all very illogical, but you can't help but fall in love with it. The only irrational thing I can relate this to in the US is our continued use of the Imperial system of measurements; we all know it's inefficient, hard to learn, and obsolete, but it won't be abandoned any time soon. Mendoza is a city that embraces irrationality, staving off encroaching capitalistic pragmatism and efficiency. Maybe it isn't the climate so much as the culture that's responsible for this region's amazing viniculture...

 Lots of trees in Mendoza. You can't really tell from this angle, but those sidewalks are super wide.
A nice gate.

I will have many pictures of things tomorrow.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Bariloche had an accident that resulted in an interesting last week. An excavator accidentally severed the city’s main gas line. Being that all cooking appliances, furnaces, and hot water heaters run on gas here, Bariloche got cold real quick. All of the schools shut down for lack of heat, warm food was hard to come by, showers were attempted by only the desperate, and getting clothes washed and dried simply didn’t work. I failed to see the point in closing the schools because the kids’ houses were equally absent of warmth, so I continued my classes with my instructor. Grilling or heating the house with the living room fireplaces would have been an option, but the day the gas line went out the weather turned to Oregonian rain and any piece of dry wood in existence was soaked. We were able to grab one of the last bags of coal from the store, but that lasted about four hours.

I passed the cold evening hours under blankets wearing enough layers to make a croissant jealous. With the cat sleeping at my feet, we watching TED Talks and MASH re-runs until sleeping through to morning seemed possible.
From what I could understand, the gas couldn’t just be turned back on after they had the pipe fixed. They had to go to each house along its path and turn it on again. Being a few kilometers from town we still didn’t have gas this morning when I left for Mendoza. I’m in Buenos Aires right now waiting for a flight to Mendoza, happy to be back in the 70 degree heat, but definitely missing Bariloche already. 

Tomorrow I will explore Mendoza.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The President

Yesterday, May 25, is a national holiday marking the beginning of the Argentine independence. What is more exciting though, is that the current president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kurcher, came to Bariloche to deliver a speech and celebrate the holiday. This is significant because Patagonia, despite its rugged allure in there countries, has always been treated as somewhat of a Little Orphan Annie by the politicians and businesspeople of Buenos Aires. More recently Patagonia's green energy production and research, mineral stores, tourism, and agricultural economic productivity has played the Daddy Warbucks between Annie and Miss Hannigan, played by the aforementioned flatlanders. Any politician would thusly concern themselves with both the realized and potential economic capacity of Patagonia. Cristina's actions are less "Miss Hannigan-ish" than a flatlander politician; she served as senator representing Santa Cruz province, which is in Patagonia. Cristina, as she's endearingly referred to, is an iconic leader in Argentina's history because she was widowed by the death of her husband and former President, while in office herself. Like Michelle Obama she is has become a fashion icon and is a human rights advocate. Cristina has also helped bring about some feminization in the macho Latino world; Cristina started her political career in the Peronist Youth (google it). Her appearance in Bariloche was a huge deal for Patagonia, and I was psyched to get to go see her speak. I set off toward town to go hear Cristina, and having forgotten my bus pass, entered Bariloche an hour later. Helicopters were buzzing, bands noising, and people everywhere. That was enough for me. I saw some rocks up on Cerro Otto, the mountain above town, and they were calling, so I left before entering the chaos of society. I followed a winding mountain road for what felt like hours. I got so bored that I started to run. This is saying something because I hate running. I got to a switch back in the road that seemed to sit right over the top of the ceremonies, and I heard politicians' voices reverberating off of the land. It felt kind of like an out-of-body experience, looking down on all of the humans, doing human things, while I stood barefoot on a mountain overlooking it all (my clog-shoe things aren't meant for miles of hiking and running and were painful to wear). After more trekking I finally got to the same elevation as the rocks I had seen, and left the road heading toward their base. White 30 meter high granite cliffs met me. Not having brought my climbing shoes to the political thing, I climbed barefoot. I spent quite some time trying to summit the things, but not being roped up I felt quite exposed for moves that were getting into the 5.10 range, so I retreated time and again, failing at every route I could find, but getting massive rushes of adrenaline nonetheless.

 The rock had some super fun slopey features that made being barefoot an advantage.
After climbing, I was starved. I had forgotten to eat before leaving town. I realized though that the gondola that goes above my house and operates every day all day as a tourist trap, has a restaurant at the top! It was probably only a 20 minute hike up the ridge line and I arrived in a complete fog-out. I could hear the lift station but couldn't see far enough to tell where it was. I felt like 007 again, sneaking around these big metal catwalks trying to not get noticed in what was definitively an employees only area. Finally I saw a guy walking, so I followed him and luckily ended up finding the door inside. I walked in, out of fierce mountain wind and zero visibility, staring six feet up at Michelangelo's Statue of David's nude butt. I couldn't make this stuff up. One simply does not expect to find a Michelangelo museum at the top of a stormy mountain. After pretending to seem interested for a while in order to blend in with the tourists, I found a restroom, washed the blood off my hands from some hangnails that got torn off while climbing, made my hair lay a little flatter, and then followed the stream of people, ending up in the restaurant. At first when I emerged into the restaurant from the stairs below, I thought maybe I was drunk or had vertigo or something. The entire room seemed to spin around me. A few seconds later I realized that I was standing in Argentina's only revolving restaurant. They had hamburgers, german beer on tap, and a the rotating vista of the entire lake district, Andes, and steppe. After dinner I hopped on the gondola and descended to my home.
 View from rotating restaurant

Today I took a bus to the village of Llao Llao, which is supposed to be some cool place. Except for a magnificent hotel which all but threw me out for looking so grungy, it was uninteresting, so I left. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

James Bond

I'm living about two miles outside of the main town. This morning I did a practical Spanish class with my teacher and we toured the city. We spent a long time in a wine store and it was great to kind of have a translator so that way I could have a good conversation with someone about the wine industry here and be confident of what I understood.

Time is interesting here. Because Argentina is less of a hypochondriac about darkness, the entire country stays on the same time zone, including the entire western portion. This results in drastically different sunset and sunrise times. Although I took the bus into town at 9am, it was dark out until I reached town, but in Buenos Aires I walked to school at 7:30am in sunlight.

Because of this weird timing I only ever feel like eating breakfast, so after class I went to a chocolate factory and breakfasted. The predominant colonial representation in Bariloche is by the Swiss, followed closely by Germans. I believe the last Nazi war criminal to evade Nuremberg was found in Bariloche. This makes it so I can't buy beans, tortillas, sour cream, or mexican salsa here, making it hard for me to survive since my normal diet consists of burritos or more burritos. I can live with it though, because it also means there are many microbreweries and chocolate shops. A bottle of microbrew here costs about $20ARS which is about $4.50USD. It's hard to convince yourself to buy a 12oz bottle of beer for $5 when you can buy a bottle of 10 year old wine for $10.  I hear that happy hour at the breweries gets you 2 for 1 so I think I will go try the microbrews at their origins. Back to breakfast at the chocolate factory: most notable was the drink I decided to try. It's called a Rapa Nui and contains four layers: on the bottom is super thick melted white chocolate. Layer two: slightly less viscous but still requiring verticality to depart the cup, a layer of milk chocolate. Layer three: Argentine Espresso (is a little less dense than American Espresso). Layer four is something I've only seen in Argentina which I believe is frothed milk like on a standard cappuccino but instead it is made with this kind of partially whipped whipping cream so it results in a super dense foam. It came with instructions on how to drink it... Any drink that precocious is bound to taste good.

 After breakfast I felt like vomiting because of the sugar, so I decided to walk the two miles home on the beach instead of going inside the packed busses. It was thrilling because much of the lake front is owned by people. Upon reaching one such private section I was impeded by this estate's private pier which was solid concrete and circumvention was impossible. I decided defeat was not acceptable, so I tied my pack to my foot and climbed the concrete wall. As I poked my eyes over the wall, scanning for a hideout to stage my crossing in front of the mansion's living room vista, I spotted raised flower beds right below the windows of the mansion, about the same height as the width of a torso. I waited, my arms growing tired from hanging with no footholds and 15' of drop below. Finally the lady cooking inside the mansion, who seemed to be the only inhabitant, left for another room, and I mantled the wall, sprinting as best I could, having forgotten that my pack was still attached to my foot, to the flower gardens. I then army crawled for about 20 meters until shrubbery gave way to my escape. It was as close to James Bond as I've ever felt. I was rewarded for my bravery (stupidity?) with the discovery of a new bouldering location!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


After my class today I walked down to the lake for some sight seeing. I followed a little trail on the side of the road that led down to some cliffs. After sitting for at least an hour, completely stunned by the beauty, I climbed down and found a guy clinging to an overhang in the cliffs. A fellow climber! I abandoned my introversion and proceeded to approach him and begin discussing climbing. He showed me the good boulder routes and despite not having my climbing shoes with me, I climbed until the sun set. My favorite problem was just traversing the entire stretch of cliffs on the shore. They went pretty high so it was more like free soloing, but the climbing was nothing more than V2 so not too difficult. I took pictures of the location but, not wanting to be a tourist, I refrained from asking the other climber to take my picture. I need an actual camera and telephoto lens to do the vista justice, but man... What a spot to watch a sunset while climbing.

Ah it looks like I accidentally got my feet in a picture! I guess that's the first picture of me yet. These pictures of the water are deceptive, but I'm actually about 30' above the water here and the water is crystal clear for until about 20' of depth.