South America 2011-2012: Bariloche, Argentina

Arriving on December 22nd, the thinking is to hold tight at least through the mess of finding lodgings over the Christmas period of mayhem. Maybe I'll remain as long as New Year's. Whatever the case, I'll keep with moving the reading along if only to pitch weight. So I finish The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, then quickly squeeze in what is apparently (per a South African acquaintance in my room) an African classic, Things Fall Apart. THAT's a depressing look at how colonialism brought pressure to do away with animist/tribal beliefs in upper Nigeria. Then it's back to my usual tricks from my backpack vault: I simultaneously start the long-ish tomes El Amor En Los Tiempos De Colera (by G.G. Marquez) and Gargantua & Pantagruel (by Rabelais, but minus the coveted Dalí illustrations I once admired on the walls of a museum north of Barcelona).

Perhaps more importantly I find a small group (the aforementioned South African Claire, Aussie Edith, and the Canadian doctor-to-be called Eric) to take on a hike up Cerro Lopez. This is yet another of the peaks lining the shore of Nahuel Haupi to the south of Bariloche, supposedly with a stocked refuge atop it somewhere. It's also handy that a bus takes us from our front door to just about where the hike should begin. If it isn't for the fact that we mistakenly follow the signs for the cars to ascend (some or all of it) in the other direction for about a kilometer or so, we'd efficiently begin. Eventually we do just that - up we go.

And how: After a steep ascent, and losing Claire (while gaining the dreaded tabano horseflies) in the process, we make it up to a building we assume to be the refuge. Not the case. Turns out we've only made it to a closed, seasonal restaurant. I only later find out the building I'm spying way up above there is the actual refuge. But this spot still seems just the place to try a hasty lunch. And... wrong again: An swiftly-increasing swarm of tabanos nix that idea, forcing us to settle on returning downhill to take a Bahia Lopez dip 3km down the road instead. This we ever-so-briefly manage before catching an infrequent bus back. Oh well - I guess this doesn't exactly check "Cerro Lopez" off of any list, but it's a nice day out. Beers follow, naturally.

A bigger day comes in the British-Irish-South Afican invasion we have over Christmas in the hostel. Whither the typical lot of driven Germans, sullen French, and loud Americans? Dunno, but there IS a handful of the latter in the end after all, plus we get a very unhappy Frenchman who, when belatedly showing up, finds all proceedings are to be done in English. His Mexican friend is no help though, easily resigned to being in on the program without a care the world. Our lone sourpuss of the evening thus reduces his presence to glaring away at the rest of us. We're too busy chowing down on a veritable, if ecclectic, feast.

Of the invasion force, meanwhile, I finally find an Irish/Canadian/Aussie crew to hit the Berlina and Blest brewpubs I've been so curious about. Or thirsty over, or... yeah. Anyway, we do the necesssary rounds of samplings (of course), but MORE importantly our conversation turns to full on gossip. It's time to discuss all the sleeping around that's been going on around (and especially on) Christmas Eve. Well, THAT's all to be expected, naturally.

THEN we get down to brass tacks, the kind of spontaneous combustion that comes in conversation over beers: Are we staying at a cult? Seriously, are the women of the hostel the friendliest people ever or are they the multiple wives of the elusive owner of the place? Hmmm - we're all more than a little convinced of the latter even after only our admittedly short time in the place. Moreover, what about the omnipresent trance music (when not interspersed with George Michael and ABBA)? Or the insistence on drinking their less-than-inspired punch? Okay, that stuff's no purple koolaid, and we can easily enough watch it being made, but it IS a bit manic how they fall over themselves to get us to try some. More investigation is needed, evidently, but it's now decided that at least a few of us will be up to the task.

Now that it's properly after Christmas, too, the Brits and Irish go while four cyclists materialize to start the replacement process. Three are Dutch, adding to a new and growing invasion of that almost-Nordic breed, but its their non-cycling compatriot in the bunk above mine that can't leave quick enough. Yeesh. Hairy undershorts man (as I term him) apparently just doesn't get the whole bunkbed dismounting thing, I'm find... like every morning. Seriously, dude: Put some fucking pants on! We really DON'T want to see ANY of you. Yeah, sometimes this communal, bonhomie-inspired hostel living bit has some pronounced downsides indeed.

Now nearing New Year's Eve, in the meantime, I decide to get at a last couple of hikes before closing out my time in Bariloche for this trip. It now looks unlikely that I'll meet up with a friend in the south of Chile after all, a main reason for my return to Bariloche outside of its conveniences of food and trekking. Let me insist right her and now that the point was NOT to stay at a cult - however much the staff might be guessing otherwise, perhaps with some amount of ulterior motive yet to be determined. Anywho, I find myself already looking forward to another stay in El Bolsón before continuing with my way to Chile via a pass even further to the south. THAT should put me across from the bottom of the Chilean island Chiloé if I cross between Trevelin and Futaleufú.

So up to Cerro Campanario it is in the interim, another low-but-nearby peak with a view. WHY, however, should be the real question. Yes, this is the worst ash day so far in Bariloche. The bus ride out to km17 or so gives enough evidence of this, yet I remain undeterred. (A fool, I unquestionably am.) As confirmation of such sentiment, I quickly find myself chewing the air when outside the bus. Yuck. Does this deter me? Of course not: I immediately take to the trail, right about after a chit-chat with a couple of Brazilians who question my sanity: There is a chairlift, like, RIGHT over there. Why don't I take THAT?!?

They're probably correct, but... well... anyway, the trail is awfully steep. The legs are begging for a stretch, is I guess what I'm saying. And that's exactly what they get in this hump of dirt completely reminiscent of Cerro Otto - albeit with the consolation that it is to mostly be done in the shade. Besides, it only takes 30 minutes to top out - both less than the 45 minute estimate AND significantly lighter on the sweat incurred from topping out Cerro Otto. But this breathing in of ash gets old from the get-go, too, even if it's probably keeping the horseflies at bay. Who knows, really? (The word is that they're heat-activated bastards, mainly a nuisance in January - or somesuch similar theory.)

In any event I get to the top and snap a few pictures. This is really only the more to merely footnote the futility of doing so than to actually hope for anything to proudly display. The placard supposedly showing the amazing view - combined with the lack thereof beyond it - suggests as much. In doing so, too, I exchange a weary smile with the Brazilians who I again meet up with. Everyone else is likewise busily documenting their poor luck of ascending to a lookout with absolutely nothing to look out AT.

I thus quickly descend to escape more ash-lung havoc, bumping into a couple of Spaniards and a rare lone-traveling Israeli at street level, all from my hostel. We all bitch about the air quality before I decide to leave them and cross the street for a beer. There the discussion effectively continues as I engage in conversation before the gray view with the only other clients - a couple of Mexican doctors. Later we talk narco-trafficking, organized crime, and corruption in both the U.S. and Mexico...

...before switching to the subject literally at hand, volcanoes and their consequences. My new friends are surprised to learn that Seattle will likely be a full-scale disaster when either its nearby volcano blows or the earthquake from its eponymous fault hits. Still, it's not like hanging out in their own Mexico City (with its similar worries) is any better. Cheers to that!, we agree.

Then they leave, so I decide to next hike several kilometers back toward to town. After the short hill hike, it only seems right to get at least SOME exercise in. Plus the air has become a little less... tasty. Perhaps this stroll is what helps when I return to trumpet the night away with the same Spaniards, a new pair of Italians, and whoever else has wandered in to cap this odd day. Ash or no, it's all good.

Re-hiking Cerro Lopez ASAP, though, should nonetheless be a more promising affair. I still feel restless. Fortunately the next day is vastly clearer, plus I have a better hiking companion. THAT'd be Stephen, a doctor-cyclist from England on a roughly 5-year quest to roam six continents atop his bicycle. He seems a more promising (equally-matched) hiker than my previous Lopez-ites - if only based on this epic journey from which he is taking a short respite.

On we board, then, that famously infrequent bus out toward Colonia Suiza. This provides enough time for me to get a minor geography lesson (covering Stephen's Oxford, rival Cambridge, and London) as we stand and itchily await the crowded bus to empty out a bit. Yep, there's no questioning high season now. Not that it matters: We soon step out near the trailhead. The rest of the bus heads on to that forlorn Swiss colony to get their drink or grub on. We'll do that later, after earning it in some measure.

In moments we are again at the Kiosk where Cerro Lopez's main stream hits the road. This time - as opposed to two weeks back on bike circuit and slightly worse than the attempt of a mere few days prior - there are FIVE large buses to greet us. Each sits on the road in front of the kiosk/restaurant; Some are again affiliated with the accursed Travel Rock (something of a full-service tour-escort system for privileged teenagers, it seems) I've been increasingly seeing around. The others are probably just unlabeled competitors. Whatever the case, about a thousand adventurous 18-year-olds are yapping away excitedly over Cokes and potato chips at the stream, not a one of them paying us HIKERS any mind. It takes about 30 seconds to clear them, fortunately, none apparently being much interested in separating from the crowd or being more than 50m from the bus. Works for us.

Within five minutes, moreover, we come to the only other people we'll see on our 2.5hr hike up to the refuge. An Argentine couple sits on a rock, sipping from their ubiquitous mate container. They give a friendly HI, immediately noting to us the need to take this thing in slow measure. They insist that it'll take six hours to get all the way up there. Huh? I'd been told three. The company we keep, apparently. We (regardless) won't see them again.

Instead we see approximately 54,873 of those f*&king horseflies called tabanos. The bastards! Again! Indeed, this is the worst I've had to deal with the beasts. It seems like about fifteen swirl about us each, a horde taking residence at virtually all times when there isn't a good breeze. That's most of the time. Fortunately, however, they are as stupid as ever before: My meticulous kill count is dramatically raised in short order.

Once again I take in the waterfall to the right, now in different company; I get a second spying of the refuge above, too. THIS time I know that it actually IS the refuge. I think that helps somehow. The trail, however, is still plenty ridiculously (tiptoes at times) steep. This is true even as we make significantly better time to get up to the restaurant where I'd previous stopped in mistaken victory. Around then Stephen brings to bear that there are actually TWO kinds of the dreaded tabanos, for what that's worth. The bigger one has green eyes and more of a sheen; The other is primarily black. Dime m´s!, I insist: To this, Stephen informs me that only the females bite - to which I can only begin having dreams of matricide of a most insectual nature. The females are which, again? I continue swatting away violently whenever one dares to alight upon my treasured hide.

From the restaurant we next begin the trek into uncharted territory, now for me as well. Here it remains steep, even dustier if possible, and the horseflies amp up their frenzy to a new level. Shit! In the process, meanwhile, we cross the dirt road making its way up in tandem a couple of times. Finally we've had it with the combination of slow steepness and tabano fury, deciding to stay on the dirt road for the last chunk of our hike up. This is the correct choice - especially since we would've only been able to continue on the trail for a bit more anyway. For this, too, we are soon rewarded with a an odd view of the ash cloud above Puyehue. It IS nice to have convincing proof of the source of so much misery, lost business, eye soreness, and perhaps even indigestion for all I know. We next also run into some kind of odd sculpture/artwork on a type of spindle, a small collection of mysteries to remain unexplained. Then comes a succession of views of waterfalls, ones whose outflow will eventually allow for a merciful dipping of sweaty heads.

A final assault on the no-longer-car-accessible road puts us up at the refuge. By this time, I'm making bold assertions. For instance, I'm convinced there will be people up there (surely!)... not to mention beer, a "true" water source, and even dancing girls. Yeah, in for a penny... Regardless, even I have my doubts to that fading reality as we close in on the building above that looks particularly deserted. Then - what's that?!? - ah!, music! Yes, only at the last minute is it audible, but when we pass a window to come around and up to the door it's unmistakable: we have reached civilization again, or whatever it takes the form of in an official Argentine refuge.

Within a minute, then, we are greeted by a trio of modestly surprised workers - there are no other guests - and a reasonably cold macro-beer called Isenbeck. This is no time to be fussy - we pop them open in seconds. In minutes more, we are told of water just over the rockpile to one side of the cabin... before the girls go outside to dance a little bit. This is apparently is done to some music which must mostly be in their heads. So indeed no, I shit thee not: I HAVE won all my hastily-placed bets! (To be fair, though: Some of the gyrating likely involves shooing away horseflies, the beer tastes actually pretty lame, and we never go to the trouble of hitting or even finding the water source.)

In the thralls of succuss we spend a good 40-odd minutes at the refuge, continuing our discussion about cycle touring and such. We banter about the ideas of how to make a dollar (or sterling pound) while traveling, even if the both of us have long come to the conclusion that travel writing certainly won't pay boo. Stephen's done okay with getting free gear via sponsorships, however, plus his giving the odd speech here or there to local clubs interested in culture and adventure has been working out as well. For my part there's only the trumpet, of course - and THAT reminds me that, once again, I really need to try a busk in Bariloche before I blow town. I make a vow, even jotting it into my scratchpad: BUSK BARILOCHE!

As our discussion winds down, and we rehydrate improbably with beer, eventually we reduce our yapping to just looking out at the view. For some reason - inexplicable, I admit and hope both - I take this moment to wonder: Just EXACTLY where did that planeload of rugby players crash, anyway? Yes, THAT one, from whence the tales of cannibalism for survival inspired the book and movie "Alive". This reverie of mind only serves to prove that the grey matter does indeed take weird turns, a small amount of alcohol and lliquor notwithstanding. We really should get going...

The way back is relatively uneventful. Stephen gets some harsh cramps right away in his thighs - which he suspects has something to do with the switchup from all of his cycling. I have no idea as to that, but the pain he's evidently undergoing eventually serves to insist that we separate when he decides to take to the road down. That should take him all the way to the mythological lost Swiss colony rather directly (if handily ignoring the switchbacks, which we will). For my part, I head straight down the steep trail to the river below by the kiosk. Once there another head dip in the river is called for, plus a few yoga stretches with a head cooled by a breeze. Only then do I contemplate the 3km necessary to ramble on and over to the "colony".

Back on the flats and off the trail, I quickly bump into a couple of Irish girls. I'd recommended them to head in this direction on bikes, and now here they are. And then there they go, too, with even MORE brewery information (they ARE Irish) that I can throw their way... and I get to "town": Colonia Suiza, where I can finally start in on a few beers at the brewpub Berlina. I chat with the few locals who inhabit the place (I'm the entire clientelle) before Stephen eventually arrives from a hitchhike and has a couple of the hoppy liquids himself. Burp. Done! Only then are we ready for the final bus of the day, at eight o'clock, which rolls into town to take us back to that grand ville called Bariloche. (It's worth noting that we should be thankful that there is a bus at all: The entire colony is only open for business between Christmas (La Navidad) and Holy Week (Semana Santa). Outside of that it's a likely long and lonely hitchhike or walk.)

Now officially closing evermore on New Year's, some musicians finally roll into the hostel. Yay! Well, it's really just one TRUE musician, but another traveler has a guitar she's been learning on that we can appropriate. Perfect enough! This allows us to try a few stabs at playing some music together, my friend still first giving it a go on his flute and charanga - until tonality is just too large an issue to ignore. Only when the guitar is brought out, and we more or less get in tune, does the fun begin in earnest. THAT is what insists we play until 2 a.m.. These lips gonna hoit! We really getting rolling when he strums a variety of licks of classical Spanish guitar - which allows me to get ripping on riffs of a most grandiose nature. We REALLY should be playing alongside a bullfighting ring, but a balcony with a sweeping view will do nicely.

The OTHER musical event comes to follow the next day when I FINALLY busk the mean streets of Bariloche. I choose an archway heading out from the grand plaza, good enough for my purposes (which consists mostly in just doing it, minus any logos). No, I don't make squat, a given in disobeying RULE #1 of busking - which is to play only where one can be heard AND seen by passers-by for at least 30 seconds beforehand. But I have fun nonetheless. Many thumbs-ups come from surprised pedestrians as they curl through my thoroughfare/passageway redoubt; The old man who hawks his St. Bernard dogs comes over to ply his trade of photo-ops. He evidently figures business will be more brisk, now coming as it does with a musical background. From what I'd been spying of him earlier this seems the case. He, meanwhile, suggests I play the blues. So I play the blues... and I still make diddly. All the while I regardless revel in the marvelous acoustics AND the ability to finally play unmuted. All good all around as far as I'm concerned. Mission: success!

New Year's Eve arrives, meanwhile, and another dinner party is the plan at the hostel. I look over the list, figuring on making lentils again just as on Christmas. That went over well, plus it taught me what I already knew: finding the right ingredients is the trick. Then I get lazy and put together a salami plate - the busking had taken too much of the day to consider cooking after all. The problem of ingredients similarly exists for a Korean couple which arrives the previous day. They also know they won't be able to find any exotic - or even merely odd - ingredients - but they are thankfully more game than I to make do. South America, from rich to poor neighborhoods, has a way of continually reminding us from the richer countries how spoiled we are in being able to find almost any ingredient when in a sufficiently-sized (or educated) city.

To this couple's entries on the sign-up sheet I quiz them on what they are thinking of making, of course, but this is really only an excuse to engage in some conversation about South Korea. They're delighted in finding out I lived there; I'm equally so about getting a little history lesson. Among other things I find out that the first neighborhood I lived in - Tong Bingo Don - means East Ice Storage. Apparently it was the place where chunks of ice were sawn out of the Han River and used to preserve food. Similarly, Shin Dang Dong - another of our neighborhoods - means New Forest. It's in an area that used to lie outside of the city, even if it is considered part of the city center nowadays.

Far more sobering were the husband's comments about being a university student back in our shared - yet so different - days under the dictator Park Chung Hee. On more than one occasion he had friends end up disappearing after a night of talking at a pub. It could mean jail for a good while, or worse. Everyone was afraid of "worse". Needless to say, he's generally happy about the direction in which South Korea has gone.

When another Korean couple shows up, younger by a generation, it's interesting to note the contrast in attitudes and behavior (both couples are equally friendly to all who engage them). With these two I receive and enjoy an extended discussion on Korean history, especially as it relates to China, Japan, and language - before taking on world politics. I find them surprisingly familiar with many books I've read about culture - Guns, Germs, and Steel particularly - and the discussions continue anew. All the while I'm thinking that this mere existence of Korean tourists in Argentina - and this is really the only Asian country from which I've noticed an increased presence of in the tourist ranks - speaks volumes in and of itself. They have pulled up to the table of the haves while calmly, politely, and firmly insisting on their right to be there. Would that the table include all nations sooner than later.

But all of this, really, really, REALLY only brings me back to the subject of... the cult. There's no easier way to broach the subject for this amateur writer,evidently. So yeah, the cult. I don't know what else to call it, but that word best gets to the point that too many of us find ourselves in unwitting agreement - even if in its form we don't find it the most odious of realities with which we can be presented. They really DO seem rather happy. Plus there are only six of them, four women and two men. As to where friends become a commune to become a cult - who knows?

But a cult it's gotta be, we all agree, especially for those of us that have finally gotten to see the exalted leader. Without him, the staff is merely a rather nice bunch of helpful people. They're always ready to go the extra measure with information or service, and it's not for nothing that many among us remark that this is one of the nicest and impressive (whatta view!) hostels around. Sure, there's a lot of meaningful eye contact that insists on holding their gazes directly. Yeah, they seem to lock on to anyone who speaks aloud about figuring out what next step to take in life, sometimes even taking us innocents by the arm to establish the eyeball lock while talking about how they are just one happy Happy FAMILY, but... well, they're all so nice!

The arrive of L changes all that. Now the weirdness is no longer - perhaps can be no longer - hidden. When he's around, the others are all comport themselves with the most obeisant interest and thrall to his presence. When he sits, for example, he invariably has two women to each side. He speaks the vast majority of the time while they look to him with unwavering attention, anticipating his wants by filling his glass and plate should a drop or morsel be lacking. Hmm.

On a couple occasions of this nature, too, there are moments when a couple of the women take to weeping. These are the same two which are overheard to refer to themselves informally as his wives. The guessing among us conspiring conspirators is that all four are, or were, or sometimes can be. Conjecture is rife - and nothing seems to particularly contradict it to the satisfaction of anyone.

In the meantime the lone other male dresses and grooms himself as the leader's 30-years-younger doppelganger, or so it appears. It's only noticeable when both are in the same room. He adopts his mannerisms, probably hoping that some of whatever the old guy's got rubs off on him somehow. Not that it likely helps in the short term, of course: We're all sure that he's not getting any... but he's sure probably hoping for that ONE day.

But that day won't be New year's Eve. Again the head "wife" changes her dress a number of times, although fewer than on the runway event for her that Christmas became (to the point that the Irish girls decided to do likewise on a lark). On each occasion she chooses yet another skimpy cocktail outfit to show off her frankly impressively curvaceous body for 45 or 50 or whatever she is. A number of times she asks what I think the new look - just as I think that they are all thinking about what I'm thinking by returning to their lair. I think. Could I be a potential convert? Who knows, but all four women dance dirtily away with each other, we see the two wives make out, and all this in view of the leader - who stands back in his corner smiling in approval. It seems that he's mostly uninterested in speaking with anyone else... yet.

Come midnight, though, it's time for another curious speech from one of the women (as on Christmas). Thanking us for being in attendance on this joyous occasion, the subject is turned shortly to praising the leader. It's at this moment that we are asked to take a step back and think "seriously"... like about how seriously amazing the leader is to have granted all this to be. L takes a bow in between beaming beatifically. True, this monologue fits in well with previous comments about how the hostel and the "family" which the staff form are all found to be in his image. But... yuck. Fortunately we're all drinking plenty - most of us will barely be around long enough to care or even particularly notice how the pieces of this weird puzzle are coming together.

But some of us do, and that goes beyond a number of us who have been wondering how a 21-year-old left her family behind to never go back and visit her native country, family, or friends again. She's now 28. Or how about how the others similarly maintain that this is their family now - they're all owners of this penthouse in the sky. Only later, upon my return to El Bolsón, do I verify how meaningless THAT appellation is. Previous members of the family who have left all have seemed to find such ownership a tenuous, temporal thing. Each left with nothing but amazement - as in how they contributed for free to an experiment in family that's likely gotten even stranger since they left. It's certainly strange enough right about now. But hey.

Back to the present, meanwhile, a Dutch girl who separates from the pack (as we head off to a bar) is cornered by this "family". It's now late into the New Year's evening and she's apparently made the mistake of sounding out loud that she's looking for what should come next in her life. Those are the key words, naturally - could we have a recruit, and a female one to boot, in the making? Hmm: The leader turns all this charm on now, even suggesting out loud how he could have sex with her - but that's not what the conversation is about, of course!, he insists. Just evidently felt the need to toss that in there...

ANYWHO! He does most of the talking - practically all of it, actually - before declaring this to be one of the most absolutely fascinating conversations he's had in like ten years. That it's technically a monologue with the wives look on in entranced adulation, not even piping in a word to break any part of his spell, is completely missed. Luckily, poor M eventually finds an excuse to escape the meaningful eyes. Yecch.

As to all the prurient details, who knows? What meaning is behind a couple of wives making out on a dance floor? Or how the Brazilian later tells us that supposedly the leader beds one of them in the living room area late into the night (when everyone else is in bed, in theory). To each their own, indeed. Free love, multiple wives? Well, really, I certainly could care as little and less about that as the next of us. It's just that there's this nagging feeling that a predator is at work here, one that's looking for the vulnerable (likely women), using proxies with leading questions of "looking for something" in much the way hopeful converters of a religious nature work. I wonder if the idea behind recruitment is to give reinforcement and reassurance to brain washing. My take is that that's how cracks are covered, much like the grand lie of being "co-owners" in this little enterprise that keeps their ship afloat.

Well... to each their own indeed. But I've seen enough and am more than ready to leave on New Year's Day. See ya later, Bariloche - and I think I'll be staying somewhere else next time! This cult stuff gets all so distracting!

A roof I happened to like, at KM7 heading along the lake:

An Italian-Spanish connection...

From New Year's Eve, the CULTural mayhem...

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