South America 2012-2013: Mendoza, Argentina

If one thing is certain, it's this: The buses I've been taking of late ain't no death buses, not at the top-rank Cama Suite level they ain't. I'm getting a good night's sleep, and the food even seems to be getting marginally better with each one. On this latest go-round, in fact, our "waiter" has put on the white gloves and starts the evening's meal service by walking around with an alcohol-based hand cleaner that he squirts onto the awaiting palms of one and all. Additionally, apparently the flagship service of AndesMar has found the wherewithall to put electronic entertainment centers in each of the seatbacks facing us rubes. I never get around to flicking mine on, however, not after watching the girls to my left side doing so and having to first endure a long video from AndesMar that gives gobs of general information related to our welcome and safety, their travel services, being courteous... zzz. I close the curtains around my soon-to-be completely horizontal seat to snooze happily away immediately following dinner. Morning welcomes me with our bus already practically entering the bus terminal of Mendoza. It's about 7:30 a.m. as I gather my bag and tip the (what should be an unnecessary) two pesos for the privilege of getting my things back. Before leaving the terminal, I spec out a little information about the upcoming crossing to Chile ahead, then walk over to my nearby hostel (Lao). Once there, but only after a pause with a curious look, I'm welcomed back to the same place where I was almost exactly a year before. It's a bit early for a glass of celebratory wine, naturally (or so one should think, r-ight...?), so instead I get some coffee going as I catch up with first Celeste and then husband Mike (after he shakes off the wine from the previous night). No, I don't precisely have a Mendoza game plan in mind, no, I tell them, but I remember how pleasant this town is. Yes, I'm entirely up for four nights of air-conditioned dorm bliss after sweating it a bit too often in Córdoba.

The main Mendoza thing is, of course, wine. To that end, immediately I see evidence of the just-ended festival, Vendimia, everywhere I turn. By this I mean during my shortly taking in of the verdant streets of Cuyo province's capital. Posters of beauty queens greet me via many a prominent billboard spot, smiling back at one and all of us no-doubt hapless winos with their tiara crowns from their respective pueblos firmly in place. The only verbage on the posters consists of their town/region, so I'm not sure if this is advertising per se for the festival - or a play to be judged all the more positively by face recognition in the competition for the wine festival queen. "Too late now!", I think to myself. Shockingly, I'll never take the time to discover who won.

Really, I'm just happy for all the leafy greenery that keeps the sun off of my head. They are a more than necessary amenity of this town, especially as I walk around what is actually a carving out of the desert that is blessed with great irrigation. The canals and ditches line the sides of every street one takes, most with water flowing in them. (on the down side, virtually all unfortunately also sport inside at least a random bit of trash such as a drink carton or potato chip bag.)

More importantly, I almost immediately find that a random opportunity will be available to reward my first day in town: There's to be an afternoon, division one soccer match between the local Godoy Cruz team and the visiting Argentinos Juniors outta Buenos Aires. In no time I sign on to some kinda "tour" that should supposedly negotiate my (our group's) way safely through the rowdies' section... before later blanching at the 180 peso price tag that comes when I'm handed a voucher. Ouch - but I'm too late to undo the budget-breaking damage, I figure, resigning myself to the reality that I should've asked the cost before blithely just saying "Sure!" In any event, I've yet to see a soccer match in Argentina in all my time spent here over the years, so it really *does* feel about time.

Would that I'd have skipped this one, though! Sure, the lead-up to the game is exciting enough, a gathering of the masses in blue-white striping as perhaps ten of us tourist types meet the couple of locals who've made a business of shepherding us futbol sheep inside to one of the famous gonzo zones of Latin American soccer. This behind-the-goal area of rowdy-dom lives up to its billing, too, as the sea of chanting and singing fans never stop with their rousing pleas in voice and song throughout the entire game. There's a good representation of quality homemade flags as well, each being waved proudly with the local colors and a variety of symbols. These include some massive streamers that are run down the entire center depth of the section we're in, topped by the fans who even stand on the railings to hold-n-shake the same to assist in rallying the troops. Impressive. Us tourist types, for our meagre part, wing the packets of scrap paper we've been given into the air, all in hopes of adding some kinda furrin' voice to the festivities. Woo!

Unfortunately, none of this boisterous sentiment applies to the actual action on the field. S-nooze. Seriously, this is shockingly lame play for a division one game in Argentina - and I've seen plenty of quality kicking and running about - not to mention actual passes and scoring - to recognize the difference. Seriously, can it be that Godoy Cruz is angling for first place in the league if they win? Shouldn't that be a helluva incentive?

Guess not: Neither side's passes have any zip, and all rallies get stymied after only a few such successively aimed ones are booted. So the score stays at a lonely 0-0 throughout. The flops for penalties lack conviction, too, which even an eventual 11-9 situation does nothing to help. Geez. I'm looking for something to throw in disgust when the star player, with loudly dyed blonde hair and neon orange shoes, eventually walks off the field to be replaced alongside muted clapping. Then, finally, comes the coup de grace to the whole affair: A penalty kick near the end of the game, surely the game winner we all think by default, is actually blocked. Yeesh.

The only thing of note, to be honest, is that I run into my favorite Mennonites from Winnipeg, Manitoba: Peter and Tim. They're sitting nearby us tourist drones, also in the yahoo section, but for only about a third of what us rubes have paid. Doh! I naturally yell "Sasketchewan!", knowing full well that only they could possibly respond out of the ruckus. Doesn't work. When I resort to waving arms and jumping, however - looking like everyone else around me but for a different reason - somehow that works. Go figure. Anyway, we catch up a bit, then head out for beers and a bite at a brewpub related to the one we haunted a couple of times in Bariloche (Antares). Over the next couple of days we'll do - or try to do - a few things together.

One such thing, and perhaps a surprising one given the plentiful sun and heat, is a trip to the local thermal baths of Cacheuta... except that we don't go. No, not after I get the run-around in the Mendoza terminal, first jogging and then running between a few different ticket booths that front the now-forever-cursed Upsallata bus company. With their monopoly, and our obvious disposition of being gringos, they try to repeatedly (and thus almost effectively) redirect us to some kind of package deal - instead of just taking their local bus and showing up as any local would do. After the bus eventually departs without us on it, ignoring my plea to "Hold on!" as I race in front of it a couple times, we regroup by drinking some mate on a bridge overlooking the canal nearest to the terminal. Defeat!

Well... then... AH! To the wineries of Lujan instead!, we soon cry. Or rather, we'll take the local bus out to walk where I went the previous year by bike. Yes, Plan B is that we'll theoretically plod between the two I never got around to checking out, both found near the local plaza of Chacras. And... success: We DO make it to, uh, exactly one of them: Bodega Pulmary. It's the only organic winery around, perhaps something of interest, but we pass on the yap yap of a tour in favor of their giving us some awfully healthy pours of their torrontés, malbec, and blend varieties. That's more like it. Indeed, I'm already a bit buzzed on my empty stomach as we ultimately decide on a full bottle of malbec to soon go along with a few recommended (and frankly awesome) steaks. This plan comes along after the owners of Hostel Lao surprisingly show up, coincidentally playing tour guide to some Brazilian cousins in tow. They suggest that a healthy dollop of such gourmand-ing is the best route all things considered - before he shortly announces, via some encouraged clapping, that a trumpeter is in the house. It is thus that I find myself playing a few tunes and us three North American yahoos resigning ourselves to this being our one and only - if however successful in every sense of the belly - outing.

Meantime, back at the hostel, I find out that I musta been overdue for a robbery - apparently the little bag that held all my electronics chargers, an iPod-USB cable, my SD card loader, and my pocket knife has been stolen. The couple of dollars in U.S. quarters and nail clippers, also in the pouch, evidently have just gone along for the ride unwittingly. I determine that this must've happened somewhere between my leaving Córdoba and by my first morning in Mendoza, with my best bet being the police inspection I slept through when entering Cuyo province in the middle of the night. Second place goes to the suspicious chump who was in the bunk above me for my first noche mendocina, but it's most likely that I'll never know.

In not much more time, too, I'll discover that my electric razor and headlamp have gone AWOL as well, joining the previously singular and mysterious disappearance of my tiny portable speaker (from my Colombia days, a prized-if-cheap find) about a month back. Fortunately none of this stuff holds much value monetarily, but I'm not looking forward to the hassle of replacing all of them. As for the parts that actually plug into a wall directly, I decide that those shall wait until I'm back on American soil to avoid the extra complication of a converter. Sigh: I guess that I packed that little zip-case they were in a bit too solidly. It was heavy and small, so it probably seemed like it was a nice piece of electronics. Which it was - but only for me. Boo.

The upshot of such ladron-inspired revelry is that it looks like I'll be doing some extra shopping in this siesta town. Fortunately, in no time I find the SD upload device for all of 28 pesos, which is plenty cheap enough ($5-6), but I decide to hold off on locating an iPod wire because of Argentina's import restrictions. Anything Apple here costs even MORE dearly than any Apple product that is already plenty spendy enough everywhere else.

Finding some Spanish-language books, another end-of-trip mission, is a different matter - especially when I have pesos to burn before dealing with the likely horrific exchange rate for Chilean pesos (because no one in their right mind wants Argentina pesos anymore). After some trolling up and down the main used book drag near the hostel, I feel quite lucky to pick up a Cortazar and some Vargas Llosa books I've been looking for. In the same vein of dumping ever more Argentine pesos, eventually I also score a small pile of woven wrist bands while eventually giving up on obtaining additional tango music. The latter comes about when I realize that I will have to head out to wherever the hell a school of music is. Nah. I DO finally get my overdue haircut-to-go for all of 40 pesos. Much better!, I think, even if I no longer match the spirit of the rather hippie wristband I sport.

Another thing to take advantage of in my dying Argentina days is a final hunk of cow meat or two. The sidewalk cafe/restaurant scene in which to do so is absolutely massive in Mendoza, fortunately, much bigger than Córdoba's ample offerings even. There are many places to pause on a deep sidewalk for a healthy grub with a view, all beckoning with extensive wine lists to boot. True, the official peatonal here isn't so big, but these numerous wide patches of concrete found in all areas of the downtown area more than make up for that.

For any and all of these I get to contrast the concept of service here in Argentina versus that which we have in the U.S. On the one hand, it can take a bit of effort to get noticed - one finds nothing like the hawks that are U.S. waiters, operating in a country where businesses seem almost solely focused on turnover over quality - but no one ever gives you the feeling that you should be moving on, either. Luckily, one can always be so bold as to get up to signal an order - or pay at the spot where the waiters are likely hiding out. They might be surprised, but they won't curse you (publicly, anyway). At the end of the day, I'll always prefer this more European approach to dining out.

But so much for shopping, and so much for the free (decent) wine at the hostel every night. Nope, it's time to inspect my food bag a last time to try and eat my way any remaining victuals for the upcoming hell of Chilean customs. Yes, I've got a bus ticket to Valparaiso. The hour to leave Argentina behind is at hand, and I've purchased one of those seats at the front of the bus which faces the big picture windows upstairs. Sure, I'll be a glass-riddled bunny should anything untoward happen - and this is something one can't help but think of every time we pass another vehicle, and there are many such passings - but what a hell of a view to check out with!

Thus it is that I board my last Argentine bus for this trip, the first of the last five that is neither overnight nor Cama Suite class. Sigh: It's time again to travel with the rabble! As for the night part, I've learned that road repairs on the road over the border have limited the crossings to only days, thus the limited options since no night bus means no Cama Suite bus. Whatever: Out of Mendoza we go, if only after I hurriedly and unsuccessfully try to burn some of my last 130 pesos via a money exchange or finding something interesting to buy. No time, no dice. So I'm instead left with the question of whether this ride will be the theoretical seven - or potentially ten - hours I'm hearing about. Only the border guards and customs officials will tell, I guess.

Meanwhile... Didn't I just do this very bus run a year ago? Yep, but this time it's going to be the road to Valpo instead of Santiago - and I've got this amazing view from on high right up front. So, although this is just like the year before, where I watched as we passed through all those gorgeous ravines and canyons of many mineral-based colors, this time it's like it's in widescreen HD technicolor. And once again, outside of the oodles of ruddy landscape to take in - that will not include much of Aconcagua this time, sitting under a mist to leave only its skirts in view - I repeat my viewings of ruins of buildings and skilifts, plus those of old train lines and their dilapidated snow sheds. All stand out in sharp contrast, testimonies to isolation against a stunning backdrop of desolation. Goodbye, Argentina - I WILL cry for you!


"I just let my voice lead me..." AVOID AVOID folks making out in all of the parks the lost: nail clippers, pocket knife, SD card, $2 in quarters, camera charger, headlamp, portable speaker, shaver, USB SD card reader, iPod-USB cable
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