South America 2011-2012: San Martin, Argentina

The best thing about San Martin right off the bat is that the ash isn't peskily around in town, a surprise. I see it on the way in, however, a big white cloud as the bus approaches the town. But once there it's a non-issue. Hopefully it'll stay that way for my guesstimated week or so in town. Still, I probably should start consulting the local paper's ash cloud prognostication on a daily basis - not that it's all that hard to walk over to the street corner and look into the distance over the lake.

Ash be damned - or the lack of it be blessed - I plan to just sit tight and enjoy what San Martin has to offer. The bigger surprise (other than the lack of ash) is that I realize almost right away that I must've missed about, like, EVERYTHING when I came through ever-so-briefly with those Bariloche hostel-mates about two months prior. The town's image even already is changing as the bus is still making its way toward the terminal. We glide through uniformly wealthy, well-appointed streets that our car must've skirted by in ignorance then. How could we have missed all the chocolate stores, the upscale restaurants and shopping, or the meticulously clean and large plazas? Well... we did.

But I won't now, I vow, especially not after what seems to have been something like two-plus solid weeks of bus and ferry transport. With a couple more to go, when I'll head north to Mendoza to return to Santiago, I'm already promising myself an upgrade in my level of bus comfort. It's to be only the famed cama (bed) bus and nothing less! I'm similarly divining that my stay in Costa Rica might well just be sitting tight at the first pleasant spot on a beach I find. My tolerance for the chicken bus has taken a blow over the last few years.

This mentality is quickly tested, too, when I find that my dormitory room apparently includes putting up with a wacky roommate. It rather briefly comes to the point that the mumbling Brazilian - who talks and grunts to himself ad nauseum - is just too much for me to handle. As I dodge to avoid his contact, I watch as he approaches my other two room inmates with babbling commentary both night and morning as they try to doze. I'm appealing to my hosts for another room right after my first breakfast.

No, it's not long either, before I decide to just bite the bullet and pony up for a private room. The opportunity fortunately presents itself with the beginning-to-slow season and a commiserating owner who has been noticing our odd friend. In this welcome redoubt, then, I quickly set up the music stand, pull out my practically-forgotten reams of music, then do a couple of elaborate yoga poses in celebration. Perhaps my reader has heard of the crowing rooster, the strutting unicorn? No? I nevertheless should probably should patent them while I'm at it...

This fat bullet of annoyance dodged, I'm shortly looking to resume my well-wrought plan of a whole lot of nothing in San Martin. Besides, in theory a friend from Colombia might wander through in a few days on his motorcycle but. Show or no on his part, I'll allow nothing to get in the way of my enjoying privacy like this. I pick some songs to learn, carve out a space to do some (rather more traditional) yoga, then fully unpack my mochila (!!!). I even pull out my laptop for some overdue catching up on this fine writing you are perusing, like, right now.

Meanwhile I'm also keen to take advantage of this town's gourmet-ish offerings. Within the first few days I'm elbow deep into two steaks and have settled on my "supplier". In the same number of days I'm stopping for chocolates from multiple sources. Research will continue on that front unabated, I'm decided. Finding a natural food store and beginning my survey of coffee shops follows en suite, a first bottle of wine and some cooking supplies naturally following. Yes, I plan on taking this relaxation and luxury seriously.

[I'm also increasingly treated to goodies like an unnamed after-dinner liquor from the above purveyor of fine steak-a-roonies. Here it is: Mix the herbs mint and meliza with lemon juice, add pure alcohol, then let it fester for a few months. Play with the portions, but not the quality. This is a specialty local to the area. You're welcome.]

It's not like I don't want to see ANY of the environs, however. The ash let-up makes this quite appealing, actually, and the sun is out. I thus make my way to the firstest and closest mirador (Bandurrias) which overlooks the town and its adjacent Lago Lacar. At sunset, and perched from on high, I take in mesa-like formations in the distance when not otherwise trying to make out individual spots exposed in this full lay of the town. Yep, this is pretty nice all around... but I sure hope those two massive and all-too-free-range bulls I closely passed on the way up aren't so close at hand for the way down. They aren't, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

On another day I decide on a longer stroll than that mirador's hour-plus wander. Although I don't know it at first, evidently I'm doing the shorter version of the Arrayan Circuit. The unusual thing is that I'M doing it on foot - almost everyone else drives or cycles it. In the end I'll guess it's some 20km or so I cover, but mostly it's just beautiful. This is in spite of the fact that the road I take turns to dirt almost immediately after leaving town and I suffer repeated dustings by the few cars on their way up to the lookout. I'm nevertheless soon happily there - as well as a small horde of a dozen or so Argentines sipping away at their mates.

It's certainly not a bad place to do so, I admit, what with this view over town now from the other side (from Mirador Bandurrias). I'm again happily looking over the Lago Lacar as it stretches into the distance, impressively giving proper meaning to the word "depth". I again pick and choose spots in town for reference points. Then that's Mirador Arrayan.

Next I walk on for the bulk of the hike's several hours, now seeing nary a bike and only a couple of cars. I brush by the edge of the Parque Nacional Lanin while passing only a couple of rustic houses to show humanity beyond the road I'm traipsing. Each has the typical collection of a cow, a horse, a sheep, and a goat - not to mention at least a few mangy dogs that seem to have no choice but to come to the edge of the property and bark viciously at me. Far more appealing than this country-esque domesticity is making out some higher and drier mountains in the distance. The San Martin's ski resort, Chapelco, dominates the bulk of one such range.

Yes, it's true that San Martin's other and more famous side is actually meant for ski season, not summer. But here I am nonetheless, strolling through some equally pretty territory on a warm sunny day. I sweat not altogether much as I munch on still-in-husk peanuts and some especially salty and wrinkled black Greek olives I've found in town. This enables me to complete the rather dusty part of the circuit with any pangs of hunger well sated. They are well gone by the time I finally run into Route 234, which will take me back into town.

From the 234 junction a few kilometers remain to regain the lake, then it's a long stretch along an uninhabited lakeside drive with unending views. One such view is the town which gets ever closer. As I finally re-approach it, too, I'm increasingly met by cyclists and joggers to remind me of the upcoming hallmark of civilization. Each person is evidently out for some sunset exercise even as I'm ending mine by walking the pleasant, arboreal streets of San Martin. A hike well done, I decide to put off the next steak and coffee shop until... tomorrow.

Also in San Martin, meanwhile, I FINALLY finish Garcia Marquez's stunningly-lush and poignant El Amor En Los Tiempos De Colera. Words, or mine anyway, are insufficient to properly give the glowing respect and admiration I have for that masterpiece and its author. Wow. I next rather improbably decide, however, to take on the huge three-in-one tome The Lord Of The Rings. Yes, apparently after a story of obsessive love, one that essentially displays the finest quality of writing on offer in the world, I feel the need to get in touch with my youth. But let me quickly state that I for one don't believe that Tolkien's bad by any means - quite the opposite. Nor do I berate axe battles with orcs and forces of evil... but there IS a difference.

I believe that my last reading was actually when I still was in my teens. Perhaps I should leave the confessing at that, but I do recall that it was in seventh grade that I first tackled Middle Earth. At THAT time it was a rather tough slog (and it technically was The Hobbit that I started with). It ended in failure, shortly requiring a second stab at it to merely enable myself the possibility of getting into the groove of the thing. But when I did I couldn't put it down. I had joined the legions of fans - and it was probably on account of seeing the books so constantly around that I gave it another shot.

Now here I find myself thumbing through a copy found in a hostel, taking in those rare pages with drawings of elven runes. I'm also aware that The Hobbit is soon coming to the big screen. Perhaps it's THAT which has put me in the mood - I dunno. Choosing the next appropriate book to read is an oddly personal process, I find, and timing can be everything. Anyway, it's almost immediately apparent that I can tell that the pages will flip pretty fast this time around. I'm ready to dive in, and right away.

I meanwhile can't ignore the fact that here I thought I was going to be dumping my physically largest book (El Amor...Colera)... only to replace it with one twice as big. Doh! I can only succumb to the appeal, however, only vowing in compensation to be done with it before I leave Argentina. That should prove reasonable enough with my eagerness to get started with the undertaking, but merely thinking of the weight alone SHOULD ensure it. Right? Right.

Literary matters aside, I take no time in deciding on one more hike before some rains hit. I rather randomly settle on the long way around to that same Mirador Bandurrias I started with. This is only pulled out of a hat when a bike rental goes awry, when a sudden crowd descends on my chosen bike shops. I've simultaneously forgotten my ID back at the hostel, too. So that's that, I karmically reason, mentally switching gears to begin hoofing it.

I don't mind the change in plans, in any event. Happy, I am, to take on the unnecessary extra hour-and-a-half (and several more kilometers) through tall forest to get to the strategic point. The way is consistently beautiful, sublime and, most of all, calm. At the mirador I stay a good while, lounging on a large cluster of rock that affords the most sweeping of views to look back toward San Martin's tree-lined streets. Then once more I have to warily make my way back, again detouring around a suspicious-looking free range bull that stares me down. Steady there, my good friend...!

Then that about wraps it for San Martin, not a whole hell of a lot to "show" for a week. Moreover, this has been a particularly anti-social week, one almost entirely focused on reading, writing, yoga (hear, hear to the private room!), and making overdue phone calls when not playing the trumpet. The realization that I just don't seem to manage to get much done in my usual social way of moving through a hostel - willing to yap and drink with most who come my way - has FINALLY sunk in. This rarity of holing up in my room a good deal, therefore, is an overdue AND successful way to prevent it.

As for the hostel's clientele, it's rather oddly the case that it's mostly Argentines and Israelis that come through for the most part. Perhaps an odder grouping could not be found, either, what with the former being typically gregarious (often with the caveat that you provide the initial contact) and the latter usually keeping to themselves (regardless if you make initial contact). The Argentines are usually on short family or couples' holidays; The Israelis generally travel within large and closed-to-outsiders packs, often right after serving their military service. No, the only people I really get to know a little are the hostel staff - plus the waiter at El Meson who's been serving me steaks while talking gourmet food and drink.

But that's a worthy tradition to take up, where I follow each of the meals there with a coffee. Then I get some chocolates to top off the outing. Such is my pattern every other day, anyway - which incurs my doing something active on the other days to "account" for it. This isn't the worst way to spend eight nights in San Martin. As for whether all of this is what helps my errant elbow get to 85.1239% healed - now just allowing me to clasp my hands behind my back for a forward bend yoga pose that's been available for almost three months - I don't know.

Anyway, perhaps it's ALSO on account of this rich vein of San Martin plentitude that I pony up the big bucks for my first and only cama bus. Not that it's that much extra, 575AP vs. 501AP, but I feel that it's gotta be worth it to obtain the luxury of being able to lie down fully horizontal (or so I think). Yes, for my longest busride of the entire trip - clocking in at about nineteen hours - I figure that this is THE place to invest a few extra dollars for once. Fair enough, the just-completed splashing for the comfort of a private room might have something to do with this, but I can't help but note that this backpacker of old keeps a-breaking down - even if I'm still generally willing to endure. I'm just not wanting to do so anymore unnecessarily, especially not if it's not required or easily avoidable.

It turns out that my bus upgrade isn't all that after all, unfortunately, although it still IS better than the typical seat. It's actually like a business class section, where a dozen or so of us folks are seated below while the rest - the people of the semi-cama - are seated above. Here in our Shangri-La, anyway, the seats are wider, lean back further (ALmost horizontally), and have more cushion. We are also afforded the amenity of a tiny foam pillow, plus a blanket that is just wide enough to cover a corpse - or perhaps I should say a coffin, what with the cold temperatures that will alternately come and go to provide a tomb-like chill.

But that's getting ahead of the grand journey: First we need depart San Martin! This we quickly do, only stopping shortly thereafter in Junin de los Andes. This is a flat bore of a town I've now seen from a window twice before, mostly a junction for (perhaps lost) travelers and fly-fishermen. The latter seems to be the case for the half dozen Frenchman who now come onboard, finishing the filling out of our "first class" section of the bus. The French language flies loud, fast, and furious between them for half an hour before dead silence reigns again. Bien - mercí!

Maybe that halt comes about, however, when the first of two shitty movies begins. Those are always something I try very hard to avoid. Then it gets worse. I see that it stars Jennifer Lopez - a VERY bad sign - in some kind of forced comedy-romance horror called The Backup Plan. Whether the follow-up movie for the evening is better - Everyone's Fine, an odd flick for Robert DeNiro if there ever is one - is anyone's guess.

At least this is all true to form: The number of good movies I've seen on buses in South America can still likely be counted on no fingers. And there's no threat of that count being upset any time soon, apparently. Nevertheless, I'm well past the point of accepting that Hollywood evidently needs to dump ALL of its B and C movie DVDs to South America - or anywhere else that is FAR, FAR away from the shores of the U.S. That they are a travesty to anyone's time - and furthermore a blight on the export of U.S. culture, such as it is - can only hope to be addressed one day.

I thus mostly try to stare out the window when not plowing forward through the Lord Of The Rings. Or I listlessly listen to tracks I select individually on my iPod as I otherwise continually watch the terrain outside quickly become ever more desert-like. We're essentially passing through the Pampas. The dark greens of San Martin go the way that the wildlife does as well, becoming very infrequent. If anything this is a reminder that such oases as San Martin and Bariloche are the exception, mere termini to the slender strands of telephone and electrical wire that line the road nigh on forever and seemingly to nowhere. They comprise the nearly only human evidence among the innumerable scatterings of glinting and flinty rocks that rest on hardscrabble dirt. They in turn are adorned only by the button grass that sprouts as far as the eye can see.

Where there are trees, welcome surprises all, these usually come in the form of forlorn lines of sauce (plane or poplar) trees. They typically delimit a property, spearing the sky with their needle-like shapes. When planted in heavier number, they unfortunately continue this regularity - invariably arranged in rows and columns that strike me as a kind of insult to nature. THAT ugliness is only topped by the unending fences that hem in the land, with only sometimes a VERY random cow or horse appearing within them. Instead their infinite strands seem to exist to provide haphazard clotheslines for the plastic trash that's blown from god-knows-where to hang. The random clusters of bones I see, sometimes with a hollow, bleached ribcage of a sheep or cow to scrape at the skies entrails, somehow fits in with this dreary desolation.

Of course this is just like what one often sees in the U.S. West, admittedly, the same fine ribbons of road lined by endless fence. I'm similarly distressed by this mangling of nature there. But maybe it's on account of those steaks I so unusually had in San Martin that I've set off on this thinking. Do I want to support a cattle industry which enslaves lands like this? I can't help but think of all the countless effort and resources marshaled to chain down the land in this way, unable to help but be saddened. Will any of these lands be free again? And how many animals' lives will forever be affected by this cordoning off of what was open for eons?

In any event on we go, watching the wind-shaped terrain fly by with only little change over long stretches. We briefly pass through some sun-blasted towns like Zapala and Neuquen as breaks to the monotony. They, too, would more or less fit in the U.S. West, in places like Arizona - albeit in lower economic zones, and featuring significantly more bars on windows and iron gates.

Some of these places along the way host massive bus stations, oddly belying their size. The gaping steel and glass structures, some with tens and tens of open portals, seem rather too long range in thinking for such small gatherings of long-haul buses. In each case it seems that these two-story dreadnoughts only briefly sweep in gracefully to disgorge or take on a handful of passengers before quickly moving on. Almost all appear immaculate, portending much greater things from their glamorous paintjobs than the simple comfort that actually lies within.

These infrequent stops meanwhile ALSO provide those rare opportunities for our onboard smokers to panic in controlled releases. They race to trundle outside each time, choking down a cigarette or two within the five minutes we pause. They invariably do this next to the door, of course, allowing the smoke to enter the bus willy-nilly as they drag away for their nicotine relief. They then reek of the stuff as they walk down the aisles and resume taking their seats. Thanks!

For MY part, I only go outside a couple of times to stretch my legs. I quickly distance myself from the bus to clear the smoke mayhem. Then, bent over in an overdue uttanasana pose, I note each time that the air is getting warmer even as we enter later into the night. This is proof enough that I'm traveling north, entering the semi-tropical-seeming zone of central Argentina in the summer time.

My sleeping, unfortunately, is fitful throughout the night. Guess the cama thing is only a mere step in the right direction, not the ENTIRE step. So it's a prolonged battle, then, between a body wanting to be horizontal and a temperature that keeps flipping between frigid or stiflingly hot. Is there really no control between these extremes? By the time dawn approaches I pass on trying any longer to fight the good fight. I'm awake. To the west I begin to see the Andes light up, soon hopefully peering for a glimpse of Aconcagua - the highest mountain of the western hemisphere at 7000m - which I'll never see.

Fortunately, I happily settle for what I DO take in: a dazzling morning's Alpenglow on the range, contrasted mightily by a dark range of foothills below and a low line of clouds above. It's frankly stunning in its enormity, a visual feast in shades of rose, crimson, and purple to outline the folds of the mountains' skirts. These are punctuated in turn by various white-capped giants further back in the distance - who themselves stand out by their proximity to the blackness of the rest of their forms. For all this I can't help but think that if I could be reading a better book than the mountain/nature-intense Lord of the Rings at the moment, I don't know what it could be.

As a prelude to this majestic parade of cordillera, meanwhile, we pass through San Rafael at 5 a.m. Many folks are walking up and down the streets, a Sunday-into-Monday morning oddity which will only be explained up ahead in Mendoza. They're partying the night away of a día feriado (holiday) on account of carnival season. Then it's not that much later that the endless vineyards begin to show up as we approach the last hour into Mendoza. THOSE tell the rest of the story, that of wine harvest time. Could it also be time for TripTrumpet to become social again? It looks to be so - images of upturned bottles of wine have begun to dance in my head.

That'll have to wait some hours yet, of course, but the interior lights of the bus come on and we are served another uninspired meal for breakfast. As soon as our lap trays are cleared away, we suddenly take a sharp left turn off the highway road. In moments we are curling around the immense statue of the symbol of the Andes, a condor. Could it be... could it be that this endless trip is ending? Yes, after nineteen hours we are hurriedly rolling toward downtown and, in mere minutes after leaving the condor to its halted flight of concrete, our bus is stopping at a massive and busy terminal to let us beleagured travelers out. Ah! Back in Mendoza again after so long!
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