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Uniquely Argentina

Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina!

I hope to be back soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some of the Argentina-esque experiences that I found to be unique compared to other countries I’ve visited.1

First, Argentina is huge. It’s nearly as long (north-to-south) as the US is wide (east-to-west).

Argentina rotated and overlaid on the US. Source: https://thetruesize.com/

As such, it has an incredible diversity of landscapes – a variety of deserts, salt flats, forests, lakes, mountains, coast, and more that I have yet to discover.

Quiz: Where can you find the tallest mountain in the Americas?


You guessed it; it's in Argentina!
Nope, it's NOT in the Patagonia.
It's called Aconcagua, and rises to 22,841 ft (6,962 meters), located in the province of Mendoza near the Chilean border.

Being in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are opposite to those in the US – and most places throughout the country experience all four seasons pronounced, (unlike many of the other South American countries I’ve visited that are located closer to the equator and often experience two seasons – rainy and dry season). In some places in the north it can reach more than 120°F heat index in the summer. Meanwhile, the southern-most part of the country has 19 hours of sunlight during peak summer (December 21), and only about five hours of daylight in peak winter, similar to Alaska.

I had the pleasure of spending a month traveling through the northern half of the country, following the western border with Chile, along “La Ruta 40”. (My travel path is drawn in purple on the map.)

When I first entered Argentina in the north, I stayed a few days in the city of San Salvador de Jujuy. My first impression was that it reminded me more of a small city in the US than of a comparable-sized city in the other South American countries I have visited.

I tried to figure out why, and I decided it was mainly because of the number of people driving around in personal vehicles. Also, there was a network of wide roads and bridges with clean sidewalks and well-maintained buildings. And the water from the tap was potable!

When I was told that this province was one of the poorer provinces of Argentina, I realized there was more wealth in Argentina than in other countries I had visited in South America. (Argentina does in fact have the second highest GNI per capita in South America, (after Chile) – twice that of Colombia, which has the next highest.)2

My first impression of Argentina: San Salvador de Jujuy

Having been a rural water systems engineer in Peru, trying to improve drinking water quality there, I was really happy to find that I could drink from the tap in all the places I visited throughout my time in Argentina, not just in Jujuy. (Though I was told that it might be questionable to drink from the tap in some of the smaller, more remote towns in the country.)

Quiz 2: Where was the biggest dinosaur in the world found?

Yep, also Argentina! Argentinosaurus is the biggest dinosaur skeleton found in the world so far, and Giganotosaurus is the biggest carnivore discovered so far - both found in the Patagonia of Argentina.

Bear with me, while I geek out a little bit more.

I love walkable cities, and many of the cities I visited in Argentina were, well, somewhat walkable. That is to say that in most neighborhoods you could always find a store with the necessities within walking distance if you don’t mind walking a bit.

The cities tended to sprawl, (probably due to the extensive space available,) so they were designed to accommodate vehicle traffic necessary to carry you those longer distances across the city, which often takes away from the walkability of a place. (On the other hand, all the small towns were very walkable – possibly one of the reasons I love small towns so much.)

Most cities had good (but not exceptional) public transportation. What was exceptional was the universal fare card for public transportation that works in multiple cities throughout the country!3

The only down side is that you are obligated to use the fare card to pay the bus fare and you aren’t allowed to pay cash on the bus (like many other countries). Since I didn’t have a card, I had to find someone who would pay my fare and I would pay them cash. More correctly, I would TRY to pay them my fare in cash, but 99% of the people who paid my fare with their card refused to let me pay them back, looking at me like I was crazy and saying, “Por favoooor!”

If you have read my previous blogs, you are familiar with the surprising levels of generosity I came across during my travels in Argentina, and this is just one example. It was very rare that someone would let me pay them back for them something they offered me or helped me with, and I was often met with a “Por favor!” (“Please! You will NOT be paying me back for that!”), as if they were offended that I didn’t realize it was a gift, and I was insulting them for even thinking that I should offer them something monetary in return.

Even thanking someone was often met with a “Por favor!”, bringing Argentina in competition with Colombia for the kindest response to “Thank you”. (The most common response to “Thank you” in Colombia was, “Con gusto!” or “with pleasure!”)

Maybe you remember mate (“mah-tay”)? This is such a unique characteristic and defining feature of the country that I have to mention it here.

Mate (“mah-tay”) is a ritual, a tradition, a social activity, a part of daily life, and/or an event. It’s like drinking coffee in the mornings (and/or throughout the day). It’s like having a smoke break. It’s like having a drink with friends or co-workers. It’s like offering a beer to a stranger or an acquaintance. It’s like inviting people over for brunch.

Mate is an herb from northeast Argentina (also grown in the bordering regions of Paraguy and southern Brazil) that is drunk as a loose-leaf tea in a special recipient (also called a “mate”), with a special metal straw called a “bombilla”. There is a universal procedure for preparing the mate and etiquette for drinking it – it’s serious business.

Everyone drinks mate,4 and most people drink it all throughout the day. If you are with someone else, you drink mate together, and if you want to be cordial with someone who passes by, you offer them a mate.

Another thing that stood out about Argentina is that everyone was white.4 Hyperbole again. But, the percentage of white people was astounding compared to what I had seen in other South American countries. It turns out that in addition to the Spaniard colonists, Argentina had a huge migration of Italians starting in about 1860 and lasting for around a century.

I’m not sure if it’s related, but Argentina has a unique way of speaking Castellano (Spanish)…so much so, that in Argentina I felt like I had regressed a couple years in my understanding of Spanish, and I often had to listen extra carefully and ask people to repeat things.

Every country has its own slang and unique terms, but in Argentina verbs are actually pronounced differently and the “y” and “ll” are pronounced like “jsh” instead of “y”… in addition to all the slang and Argentina-specific words.

Besides getting used to the accent, one of the first language differences I had to learn was the Argentina use of “Viste?”

“Viste?” doesn’t only mean “did you see?” like everywhere else I had been. In Argentina, it’s a way to say “you know?”, just like “Cacha’i?” in Chile.

For example, someone would be explaining to me, “I work 8 hours in the office, and then I work three more hours in the night at the restaurant down the street, “viste?”, and I replied “no, no lo he visto” (“No, I haven’t seen that restaurant.”), thinking they were asking if I’d seen the restaurant where they worked.

But they were really saying “You know what I mean?” So I should have nodded in understanding, saying, “Si,” (“Yeah, I get you; that’s a long day of work!”) Oops.

Thankfully, my first couchsurfing host realized my misunderstanding after he received a few unexpected responses, and he was nice enough to explain the Argentina “viste” to me.

My favorite Argentin-ism is probably “che”, which is how you can refer to someone to get their attention – a friend, a partner, or even someone you don’t know. The closest thing in English would be saying “hey”, (though to me, che seemed to be a little warmer than “hey” and a little closer to a universal nickname for everyone).

“Che, can you pass me the salt?” “What do you think about this, Che?” “Che, look at this!” “Let’s go to the city, Che.”5

Also, “Re” (pronounced “ray”) added to the beginning of a word doesn’t mean it’s been done again like in English; it adds emphasis, like saying “really”, “super”, or “extra”.

“Re interesante, che!” (“Really interesting, che!”)

This is not nearly a summary of Argentina, but simply a compilation of a few experiences that I found to be unique to Argentina in my short time backpacking through parts of the country, after having visited a few other countries in South America. I never made it to the capital, Buenos Aires, nor to much of the Patagonia (except Bariloche); I really only got a quick peek of the country.

Like most countries, each region has its own sub cultures, and the more time you spend in a place, the better you get to know it as you see past the superficial experiences of a few encounters with a few people. So I hope you enjoy my observations, but also take them with a grain of salt; and I hope to one day be able to explore more, and if so, I’ll share more with you here!

 

Famous Footnotes

  1. These are things that were unique to Argentina, based on my travels, having explored Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. However, some things, (like mate,) aren’t restricted to the borders of Argentina and can also be found in some of the neighboring countries of Paraguy, Brazil, and even parts of Chile.
  2. Argentina’s GNI is 1/3 that of the US. GNI = Gross National Income. I looked at GNI per capita, converted by PPP (purchasing power parity) from 2018, as reported by the World Bank, which can be found here: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.MKTP.CD
  3. The “SUBE” is the universal bus/metro card https://www.argentina.gob.ar/sube/en-tu-ciudad
  4. Please allow my hyperbole.
  5. Though attributed to Argentina, some say that “che” actually originated much earlier in Europe. (Fun facts for the linguists among you). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Che_(interjection), https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2013/02/130213_che_argentino_jr

A Tale of Quarantine in two Cities

Part of living abroad is knowing that you might have to experience a “reverse culture shock” when you get back to the US. Well, I got the exciting bonus twist of coming back to the US of the COVID-19 twilight zone reality.

I knew it was going to be interesting. But what I didn’t expect was how much I would be impacted by something so abstract as contrasting responses to the pandemic. For a couple of days, I felt like my grasp on reality was slipping like a sweaty palm holding on to another sweaty palm trying to keep me from falling into a mind warp.

  1. Quarantine in Argentina

For more than a month, I was living in a country whose response to the pandemic was a mandatory quarantine since March 20; the plan was to slow the spread of the virus while they shored up their medical facilities and waited for advances in treatment options.

The president had said frankly when announcing the quarantine that businesses were going to suffer this year in order to save lives, to protect the elderly and those most vulnerable to complications from the coronavirus.

He had a well-articulated nation-wide plan (constantly evolving as new information came in). Even if I didn’t agree with all the quarantine policies, I always felt reassured after his speeches, probably because of how well he articulated the plan, explaining that he was taking advice from a range of health and economy experts. He even used power point slides to explain the plan for flattening the curve and to visually show the successes they had had in preventing deaths by limiting the spread.*

The measures were strict, and we were only supposed to leave the house to buy necessities (food and pharmaceuticals), and you could get arrested if you were caught wandering around for any other reason.

Luckily, I was able to easily adapt to the situation; I paused my travels and stayed in a beautiful spot in Bariloche with a friend. With nature as my backyard, I took it as a fortuitous time to rest and write.

I would wake up in the mornings and look out the window into a forest of trees, listening to the river flowing in the distance. After a yoga and a meditation session, I would write and have lunch. In the afternoons, I would usually go running or hiking through the forest. The sun would set around 8pm, and I would cook and eat delicious, healthy food with my roomie, and later we would sing songs, listen to music, watch documentaries, or read.

When hiking, we would usually encounter quite a few other people out, often families, sometimes couples, sometimes single runners. Often everyone a little on edge at first, making sure it wasn’t the police or someone that would call the police to snitch on us for being out of the house. But after that initial awkwardness, we relaxed knowing that it was just other people who appreciated the benefits of being outside in nature during these stressful and confusing times.

I could go shopping every other day, according to my ID number (odds were allowed to go M,W,F and evens Tu,Th,Sa – a policy implemented after cases started increasing in Bariloche). Shopping was often a half-day adventure because of the long lines of people standing a few meters apart, waiting to go in a few at a time.

Taking the scenic route to go shopping

I was staying a few kilometers outside of the city center so I had more of a rural experience. I would ride Tomás’ bike to the main road, taking the scenic route. Along the main road, I would go to the bulk foods store to buy things like oatmeal, nuts, dates, rice, beans, and most importantly – dark chocolate. Then I would go to the fish market next door, later to the cheese (and meat) store, and finally to the fruit and vegetable stand. Every now and then I would go to one of the supermarkets, but I really enjoyed taking advantage of the more fresh and local options where I chatted with the store owners that recognized me and I supported the local small businesses.

I was not unaware of my privilege during these times. A friend working for the local government was tasked with helping distribute food for those in need since many people didn’t have income during the quarantine. Bariloche has a huge tourism industry, many people earning a good portion of their income during the ski season in the winter months of June-August, and many others are self-employed doing trade work. While the government prohibited price-gouging, provided financial assistance for unemployment, and mandated that deadlines for utilities and rents be extended, needless to say, some people were still struggling. And winter was coming. (Though a friend pointed out to me that she also saw that a lot of people really step up to help each other out during these times, a generosity that seemed to be characteristic of many Argentines that I had met.)

To prevent the import and spread of cases, national and international flights had all been cancelled since March 20, and travel was not allowed except for essentials (like transport of food). This happened just as some of my Argentine friends were vacationing in Peru, and they weren’t sure how or when they would get home. After a few weeks, they were repatriated on an Argentine Air Force, quarantined in a hotel in the capital for 14 days (flight, food, and room and board paid for by the government), until they tested negative and could return home.

Into the Twilight Zone

What a contrast to my repatriation experience! When I arrived in the US after traveling on a plane with more than 200 people for more than 9 hours, we arrived in Miami airport, and it was as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. Nobody took our temperature, tested us for the coronavirus, or required us to go into quarantine. No one even asked us politely to quarantine ourselves, nor gave us instructions to do so. Nothing was done to ensure I wasn’t bringing one more case into the US.

I shouldn’t have been surprised because over the last month I had had many friends return to the US from all over the world, and they had the same story. Of 11 friends, eight had not encountered any kind of intervention to ensure they weren’t bringing the virus in. The three others had their temperature taken and nothing more. Two were recommended that they quarantine.

This left me asking myself: “Is it so out of control in the US that they’ve given up trying to limit the spread?” Or maybe there’s just enough confidence in our health systems that they’re not worried about another collapse like happened in New York or like what happened in Italy?

When I exited the skywalk and entered the airport in Texas the next day, I was stopped by a gaggle of uniformed men (the Texas Highway patrol) and asked to sign a form saying I would do a 14-day quarantine. Finally, I felt a little reassurance that someone had acknowledged the benefit of trying to limit imported cases to protect my loved ones from this pandemic. That said, there were no guidelines on how to do the quarantine and there was no follow-up to make sure I actually did the quarantine.

Then I heard the Texas Lieutenant governor say that he thought it was reasonable to put lives at risk to COVID-19 to prevent an economic downturn. The faces of my many loved ones that live in Texas – my mom, my dad, my aunts and uncles, my cousins and childhood friends – came to my mind.

The stark difference in approach from what I had gotten used to in Argentina, was shocking. I felt like I was going from one extreme to the other in the blink of an eye. (Well, Brazil might be the complete other extreme, but this still offered a stark contrast to what I had gotten used to).

I was surprised to see how much I was emotionally impacted by those larger forces around me making policy decisions, creating two different sets of rules for the same game. (Unsurprisingly, a policy based on the assumption of protecting public health and the lives of our loved ones had been more reassuring than a policy protecting the economy first.)

But at least now I understood better why I had been struggling to adapt to the new reality during the first few days, and why it had been so shocking and upsetting at first.

I had been living in a place recognized as one of the countries that has best controlled the spread, and I suddenly entered the country with one of the highest COVID-19 deaths per capita.

I have to say that it was fascinating to have had the opportunity to live in these two different realities – where different value systems, cultures, and economic circumstances were creating two different sets of rules.**

One of the most fascinating aspects is that Argentina, a country whose economy was already struggling through a serious downturn this year, decided to prioritize public health – people’s lives – over wealth. And the US, with one of the strongest economies in the world decided to prioritize it’s wealth over protecting the lives of its most vulnerable people. It really aligned with the experiences I had had in Argentina – the hospitality I had felt and all the experiences of people taking care of people and not expecting anything monetary in return – and actually being offended if you tried to offer something monetary.

 

  1. Quarantine in Texas

I arrived in Texas when the “Stay at Home Order” was being lifted, which also happened to be the day after the state recorded its maximum number of deaths due to COVID-19 so far up to that point.***

I had 14 days of quarantine to do, so the official announcement didn’t really impact me (other than the psychological aspect of it). While my quarantine was not being enforced by anyone, I did not come all the way back to the US to be closer to family so I could put them at risk.

I probably don’t have COVID-19, but I might. I traveled on three airplanes (2 completely full), walked through 3 airports, stayed in 2 hotels, and traveled in 2 taxis in Miami.

I don’t have symptoms and I don’t believe deep down in my heart that I have been infected. But reality doesn’t care what I believe. Many carriers that have been responsible for spreading it were asymptomatic. Since I don’t know for certain, I am acting like I am a carrier so that I can protect my loved ones in case what I believe is wrong.

Since I am in the same house with my aunt, this quarantine thing is a little tricky. I walk around with a mask on whenever I leave my room and go into the common areas. I wipe everything down with disinfectant after I sit somewhere for a long period of time, or after I eat. I disinfect the kitchen after preparing my food. Just in case, I don’t share the food I prepare with my aunt, which makes me feel like a horrible person, especially after living in a Latin American country for 4 years.

I maintain the 6 feet of distance from my aunt, whether we are inside or outside. When we are outside together, I try to stay downwind from her. I don’t pet the dog or the cats (just in case).

I touch my face a lot. My nose always itches probably because of the allergens here and/or the face mask always touching my nose. So I wash my hands a lot and use a lot of hand creme. It is a weird life. I was never the OCD type, at least not like this.

I spend most of my time outside, where I don’t have to wear a mask and I can breathe fresh air (and because I’m an outside, nature-loving kind-of person.) One time I ran to a park to exercise, and it there were so many people there, running and exercising! It was like normal, pre-COVID-19 times. It was a real challenge trying to stay a good distance from everyone.

My uncle and his wife surprised me and came to visit when I first arrived. It really made my day to see them! They brought their own chairs and sat 2 meters away from all of us, and we conversed for a few hours without physical contact. I didn’t hug them and I haven’t hugged my aunt since I got here a few days ago even though we haven’t seen each other in over a year. In Peace Corps, I won the “Most Likely to Give You a Hug” superlative, so you can imagine how hard that is for me. It’s a weird life.

My quarantine time is coming to an end, so I’ll be able to hug my aunt and visit my parents. I can’t wait to start living a “normal” life. Except not normal. Since there is a lot more movement here in Texas, I feel like I have to be extra careful since many others are not. There will probably be a higher risk of infection in the next couple of months (or who knows how long?), and I still am not trying to be a carrier and accidentally infect my parents or loved ones.

Living in two different realities under this pandemic has allowed me to see some of the pros and cons of different approaches. When it comes down to it, I don’t have any control over the policy choices that have been made, and I can only adjust to the situation under which I’m living. I feel encouraged by the fact that every week there is better understanding about the disease, how to treat it, how it spreads and what we can do to prevent spreading it.

This article in particular, “The Risks and How to Avoid Them,” made me feel a little more assured that by eliminating large gatherings (like the cancellation of sporting events, conferences, etc.) and taking the precautions that most people are starting to take individually, we can keep the spread low enough not to overwhelm hospitals.

Maybe I’m being optimistic. But for me, that’s one of the most important things to hang onto, even as your hands get sweaty, during any kind of crisis. Hope for the best, while being prepared for the worst.

 

Famous Footnotes:

* The quarantine started as a two-week duration and was extended three times while I was in Argentina. In the third extension, the measures began to be loosened in places without cases or with few cases. More power has been given to local governments along with the guideline to keep the rate of new cases lower than doubling every 15 days.

**One thing that I keep remembering is that one policy solution does not necessarily fit all. There are different customs, cultures, ways of gathering, ways of greeting, ways of getting around, etc, in each place, and those all can have profound impacts on how a virus spreads. One example (of many): In the few days I have been here in Texas, I am reminded of how much people are in their own cars, live far apart, and have a larger “space bubble” around them, compared to my four years in Latin America. That expectation of “personal space” that pervades much of American culture is something that might actually help with the COVID-19 physical distancing to minimize the spread of the virus.

***Reported numbers of deaths and confirmed cases tend to reflect the reality of the impacts of the disease spread from about 1-2 weeks prior (due to incubation time and the time it takes for symptoms and complications to appear). This was more than a month after the “Stay at Home” order was put in place.

 

A New Adventure

A group of backpackers were on a multi-day hike through the wilderness with some local guides. They woke up in their campsite one morning after a long, tough day of hiking at a good clip the day before. They quickly prepared their things to get an early start on the day. As they approached their guides to let them know they were ready, to their surprise, they found their guides sitting quietly and relaxing. When they asked what was wrong, the guides said, “We walked fast yesterday. We’re waiting for our souls to catch up. If we continue on now, we will have left our souls behind and we will have to come back to fetch them later.”

My last full day in Bariloche, I crossed the stream one last time and said my goodbyes to the forest and that majestic lake that always brought me a sense of tranquility.

With friends, we harvested those bright red fruits of the Rosa Mosqueta, and that night we drank Rosa Mosqueta tea and ate apple crisp from apples Tomás harvested off a nearby tree. Walking back to my cabin, I said my farewell to the night sky (specifically to the southern cross which is only visible in the southern hemisphere).

 

Jess, my sitemate in Peace Corps, had told me that story of “waiting for your soul to catch up” before leaving a place so that you don’t leave your soul behind. It was going to be a long wait since my soul was still off frolicking in the hills. And when it did return, it would be quite a challenge to convince it to come along with me. But I was trying, as I said my “Goodnight Moon” style farewells.

In these time of uncertainty, when international travel is not expected to be readily available for months, and as each country hunkers down and manages the pandemic according to its own reality, I had made the tough decision to leave this comfortable paradise to be close to family and to see if I could be more helpful from the US. It was a decision that had been coming up again and again for the last month, and I had always decided to stay. Until now.

I had had 24 hours to decide and one full day to prepare to leave on the 23-hour van ride that would take me and some other Americans in Bariloche to Buenos Aires to catch a repatriation flight.

Before sunrise the next morning, a nice guy in a van came to pick me up. I said goodbye to Tomás, leaving my tent and my well-traveled yoga mat, along with a promise to return.

– – – – –

I arrived at the strangely quiet and empty bus terminal where there was a 15-passenger van parked. There were four people standing around outside conversing and three women inside the van, along with 3 young kids. The drivers explained that were waiting for a doctor to come take our temperatures and give us the necessary paperwork* that would allow us to leave the city and travel the 24 hours across multiple provinces to the capital.

I was grateful for the wait because it gave me a little more time to say my farewell to Bariloche, and I stared into the hills with teary eyes. What had started as a small and brilliant point of light beaming from the crest of the hill, was beginning to transform into a complete disc rising out of the hills.

I thought about how many farewells I had said in the last few months and how many times I had stepped into the exciting and scary unknown of the next adventure.

Often I had left a place sooner than I would have liked. Often I had left behind friends that had become my community, giving me a sense of home and family. The fact that I do a lot of leaving doesn’t make the leaving easier. I always feel sad and nostalgic to leave people and places that I have connected with on a deep level. Tears shed are inspired by an indescribable sense of gratitude as much as by a sadness for parting with something beautiful.

As the sun broke free from the hills and shone in its full brilliance, beginning its solo journey across the sky, I accepted this unexpected detour in my journey, just as I had accepted countless other unexpected detours, every one of which had led me to some incredible and unique experience. **

– – – – –

I climbed into the van a little overwhelmed with all my emotions, thinking about those loved ones that I was headed towards and those that I was headed away from, and the place – the lake, the stream, the forest, the waterfalls, the hills – that I had briefly called home.

The others in the van were also pretty quiet and lost in their own thoughts. A mom and her 3 kids. A tall guy with his girlfriend and an older woman. Another guy who had said goodbye to his girlfriend, leaving her behind as he climbed into the van. An older woman traveling alone. And me.

Tomás had told me to enjoy the landscapes on the ride, especially “valle encantado” (enchanted valley) and “dedo de dios” (god’s finger), and he was right.

dedo de dios

The whole day we traveled alongside a river, and the landscapes transformed from rocky cliffs that make rock climbers salivate, to rolling hills offset from the river, to lakes, and even plains. Katherine (the mother of the three kids who had spent the last year traveling through the continental US with her family) commented that it kind of felt like we were traveling through the US, especially Nevada and Utah.

Miles, the 7-year-old, had that special way of commenting frankly about things, and a few hours into the ride, he said, “I wanna go out in the field and run around!” We all laughed because that was exactly how we all felt.

I wanna go out in the field and run around!

Fairly soon after that, the whole van started to become friends and share stories. Interestingly, just about everyone had been staying with an Argentine family.

It quickly became apparent that I was not the only person sad about having decided to make this journey. Almost everyone was questioning if it had been the right decision for them. Everyone was sad about having left a wonderful place and wonderful people behind. We all found solace in knowing that the others understood the complicated emotions we were going through and the crazy back-and-forth that we had gone through in the last few days.

The young guy was a nurse who had come to Argentina to do alpine climbing, and along the way he had found a community where he felt at home, had fallen in love, and was thinking of starting a life there with his girlfriend. But with the possibility of not being able to return to the US for many months, he had made the tough decision to go back to tie up loose ends. He had wonderful stories of the people he had met and was especially impacted by what a deep connection he had felt talking to people, even strangers, noting how people looked you in the eye and weren’t afraid to be vulnerable and connect, that people were really in touch with their emotions.

Katherine (the woman with the three kids) is a pediatrician and former Air Force. With her husband and kids, they had spent the last year traveling through the US in a camper van. They had recently decided to move to Bariloche to live for at least a few months here. Her husband traveled regularly back to the US for work, and in March he had gotten stranded there, unable to return to Argentina. Finally, she had had to make the decision to pack up everything and head back to the US since it was uncertain when he’d be able to come back to Argentina.

The tall guy with his girlfriend was a rafting guide from Colorado and had been working for a few months in the Patagonia during their high season. His girlfriend, a librarian, had come down with her mom (an artist), to visit and explore the Patagonia together. Unfortunately, that trip got interrupted by the quarantine, but they had found a good place to stay. With their host family, they had made all kinds of homemade foods and baked goods from fruits and vegetables they had harvested themselves.

The older woman who was traveling alone explained that she had regularly made the trip between the US and Argentina for decades because her husband is Argentine. This time she was heading back to the US without him. They had come to visit his father, but because of the quarantine, his father’s caretakers had gone back to be with family, so he staying to take care of him. Since her home and work (she volunteers at the Missouri Botanic gardens, which ironically does work in Oxapampa) were back in the States, she had decided to head back alone. She commented to us ironically that she had been a flight attendant on Eastern Airlines, the same airline (well same name anyway) that would take us all back to the US.

– – – – –

As we entered the city of Buenos Aires, 23 hours after boarding the van, we stopped at one last gas station, a chain called “Full”. Ironically, 2 months ago when I had crossed the border into Argentina on foot, I had been greeted by a Full gas station; a funny thing to mark my entrance and exit to the country.

Our flight wasn’t until the next day, so we had 24 hours to rest and prepare. Katherine and the kids adopted me into their family and we spent the day at a comfortable little place called “Bernie’s”, right near the airport. Despite its location, during the whole 24 hours, I only heard one play fly in – at about 11pm – a plane with Argentines returning from the US, and the same plane that would be taking us back the next day. And the only airplane that flew into that international airport that day.

Have you ever seen a Departures and Arrivals board so empty at an international airport in a capital city?

What could have been some of the toughest days turned out to be some of the most fun, thanks to being surrounded by great people.

Eating apples Tomás had harvested from the apple tree

With Katherine and her kids, we played games and joked around. Surrounded by our van support crew, we were able to make light of the situation and enjoy each other’s company.

My backpack has served me in so many ways along my journey. This time as a sled.

On the plane, I met another traveler who had been traveling for more than a year and mostly sleeping in her tent. She had learned to build mud, adobe, and super adobe houses and had traveled to different sites helping people build their houses.

Leaving Buenos Aires

As I have found over and over again in my journeys, being surrounding by the right people can make the toughest situations not only bearable, but truly positive, memorable experiences.

And so, (completely coincidentally) exactly four years (to the date) after leaving the US to fly to Peru to begin this South American adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was now returning to the US.

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Since Argentina was under a mandatory quarantine, travel was not allowed except for a few specific circumstances, like delivering food products or catching an international flight – but even then documentation approved by the government was needed.

**That was the first of many times I would have to repeat that acceptance process. Sometimes someone has a magical experience where some great internal struggle is resolved and they never have to face it again. More often, that first magical moment of resolve is only the first, because the same challenge surfaces again later, once, twice, tens, or sometimes hundreds of times. But the memory of that first magical moment of resolve can help us overcome the subsequent struggles.

Home in Barlioche

I certainly hadn’t planned on being in Bariloche for more than a month, but then, some of the best experiences of my travels have been unplanned. While most people can’t say that they’ve had some of their best experiences during these last few months, I have been so fortunate to be in great company in one of the most beautiful places on earth – a place that truly feels like home.

During my extended stay here, I have gotten the opportunity to explore one little nook of this beautiful corner of the world on a more personal level.

Thanks to my brilliant and fun roommate, host, and friend (Tomás), I found “home” in a safe, comfortable, eco-friendly, and gorgeous place, surrounded by good people.

Tomás has been my trail guide, my belay (while rock climbing and in life in general), slack line guru, the guitar and trombone in our 2-person house band (not sure what my role is…I guess back-up vocals), and really great company during 30+ days of lock-down.

Tomás has succeeded in (and shared with me) living a comfortable life connected to nature – close to great hikes, buying vegetables from the local vegetable vendors, eating greens from the garden, composting organic waste, and generating such a small amount of trash that we first took out the trash (a small bag) after I had been there nearly a month.

Taking turns cooking we shared vegetarian recipes and I learned a few secrets like how to cook dry beans and the magic of beer yeast as a condiment. I shared a couple of tricks I had learned in Peru (the amazing “ensalada rusa” and the power of adding ginger to a stir fry), and I almost …almost… got to a point where I enjoyed cooking.

Here, the backyard is a natural playground. There is the stream that you have to cross, hopping from rock to rock, carefully choosing your path so you don’t get stranded in the middle or foolishly land on a loose or slippery rock that pitches you into the water.

Crossing the stream opens up a whole new world. You can wander through trails parallel to the rising hills and rock faces in the south and ultimately find yourself on the lakeshore. Meandering along the lakeshore, you see where the stream you crossed earlier empties into the lake.

The beauty and serenity of the lake is like no other. Some times there is a strong wind that nearly blows you over and creates ocean-like waves on the lake. Other times, there is no wind and the lake is as still as glass.

Heading towards the mountain-like hills to the south is a network of trails that meander through the forest and hills. There are hidden waterfalls, rock faces for climbing, and trails taking you up to the peaks of the hills.

As you climb, every now and then you are rewarded with indescribable views of the lakes below.

View of the neighborhood from above. Tomas lives near the red tree along the visible road.

Walking through the forest there is a constant background sound of buzzing. At first I thought I was crazy but later I realized that it was the sound of yellow jackets. I saw a few buzzing around when we stopped in a clearing to rest on a log and do acro-yoga, looking out over the lake. But mostly they stay hidden and are heard but not seen, swarming in the trees. Except for that time that one stung me in the foot.* And that other time that one stung Tomás. A small price to pay for a beautiful day outdoors.

One spiny and annoying bush grabbed my attention (and my pants leg) ever since my first hike in the area.  It has a strange pear-apple-shaped red fruit that has nothing but seeds inside. I learned that this is the Rosa Mosqueta. An invasive weed that is really hard to get rid of.

One day my roommate and I had the bright idea to harvest the fruit and make tea. It turned out to be the best tea I’ve ever had in my life – and I’m not exaggerating! As it boiled, it put off an intense sugary sweet smell and the tea had a delicious apple-cinnamon flavor.

Speaking of harvesting fruits…you can find apple trees to provide an afternoon snack on the hike (or a week’s worth of delicious apple treats if you get serious about harvesting them).

Sometimes, walking through the forest, I smell Christmas trees. Though the pines are an invasive species here, the smell is lovely. Riding a borrowed bicycle through neighborhoods towards the main road, there are two spots where I smell that delightful smell of eucalyptus – one of my favorite smells in the world (but also an invasive). (Makes me wonder: Do all invasive trees have good smells?)

Speaking of the trees, the old Coihues are the best (and native, not invasive!) When we stumbled across a great Coihue towering above us, it felt like a guardian tree that could protect us from anything. It took three and a half people to hug that tree all the way around.

Then there are the cypress. Huge cypress trees tower above, painting the sky with a deep green on a deep blue sky backdrop. The hilltops are full of cypress, giving their rocky faces a green coat.

I’m not sure which trees change their colors in the autumn, but I was lucky enough to watch the hilltops change colors from pure green to a burnt-orange and red tint as autumn creeped in.

 

The trails in this area have provided a unique life lesson. My first time going for a trail run, I was filled with a mixture of nervousness about getting lost, but at the same time a sense of adventure, ready to explore my new “backyard”.

Within the first hundred meters, the trail divided into three forks and I had to choose which way to go. Shortly thereafter, it divided again. I took note of my choices so I could trace my way back and try the other options if I got lost or stuck. But the trail continued to divide, two and three and sometimes four forks every few hundred meters, like a maze, presenting me with countless choose-your-own-adventure-like decisions. With so many forks along the way, I quickly lost track.

Some trails were narrower and I did a lot of ducking under low-hanging trees and bushes while others were wide open rocky trails, and I even encountered a road-like trail that seemed accessible for vehicles. A few times I passed through clearings that had been used as campsites, evidenced by the fire rings. And sometimes the trail spit me out along the stream bank. With the stream as a reference point, I knew I couldn’t get completely lost because I could always follow the stream back to the point behind my house.

As I continued to somewhat randomly choose my path forward at every fork, I realized that there seemed to be a great web of trails, most of them probably all connected eventually in some way. As long as I kept the stream on my right and headed away from the setting sun, I would be able to find my way. Sometimes I had to cut through some heavy brush, and sometimes I decided to retrace my steps and find a cleaner trail or to take a more scenic trail, but I was no longer worried about going in the “wrong direction”.

Famous Footnotes:

*That was my first time being stung by any type of wasp or bee. I couldn’t believe how much it felt like stepping on a nail. I’ve never stepped on a nail either, but I imagine that’s what it feels like. But it was a small price to pay for a beautiful day outdoors.

Bariloche

The “Camino de los Siete Lagos” (or 7 Lakes Route) supposedly ends (or begins) in Villa de la Angostura, but continuing south you will find the popular ski and hiking city of Bariloche on the southern side of the beautiful lake Lake Nahuel Huapi. Located within the National Park with the same name (Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi), Bariloche is situated on the lake and surrounded by beautiful forests, mountain-like hills, streams, and other lakes – a paradise for hikers, rock climbers, kayakers, wind surfers, and anyone who loves to visit the outdoors and see breath-taking landscapes.

 

Besides being blown away by its amazing lakeshore view, my first impression of Bariloche was that it reminded me of Boulder, Colorado. I guess I wasn’t too far off because I was told it’s sister cities with Aspen. On one hand, the local feel was that it was full of outdoor enthusiasts and also had a pretty big hippy-like culture. At the same time, it was very much a tourist town,* with streets lined with businesses of all kinds, but a very notable amount of outdoor clothing and equipment shops, tourist information, health food stores, and chocolate shops. That’s right, Bariloche is also known across Argentina not only for its skiing but for its chocolate!

 

The city extends along the southern side of the lake Nahuel Huapi for about 20 km towards the peninsula and the city park Llao Llao, with unlimited beautiful sites to see along the way. Some of the most popular include visiting beaches along one of the lakes, climbing to the top one of the many hills that offer incredible views of the area, hiking through different trails in the park or around the lakes, visiting an old Swiss colony, or just exploring the city center.

 

I happened to arrive for International Women’s Day, so there was a march through the city, ending in the plaza (which looks out over the lake). I caught the end of it in the plaza when there were still around 100 people – men, women, and children – gathered, holding banners and signs, wearing green handkerchiefs,** and cheering as speakers spoke about the progress that had been made in human rights and the set-backs and modern-day challenges that Argentina faced currently. While the focus was on women’s rights and issues – domestic violence, freedom to legal and safe abortions, equal opportunities and pay – I was impressed that they chose to be inclusive and talk about basic human rights in general, bringing attention to injustices harming indigenous communities, impoverished communities, and LGBT+ persons.

 

The days were beautiful, with full sunshine that felt like summer during mid-day and cooled off quickly when the sun started to go down. There was always an energy buzzing as the streets, parks, beaches, and buses (“colectivos”) were full of people out to enjoy the outdoors – many that lived in the area but also a ton of people on vacation from Buenos Aires. The great thing about Bariloche is there are a ton of day hikes you can do and places you can visit and enjoy in just one day or a half day. But there are also a few overnight hiking and camping adventures, like Refugio Frey or climbing El Cerro Tronodor, which is on the border with Chile.

 

I barely got a chance to scratch the surface of all the popular places to visit, but each day I hopped on the city bus to go explore a new place.

 

First, I headed off to Cerro Campanario, where, (similar to Monserratte in Bogotá and Cerro San Bernardo in Salta), there was a teleferico (ski-lift-like cable car) that you could take up to the top of the hill overlooking the city.

Or, you could take the walking path and hike up to the top. (It was in this hike, where I ran into my friends the San Juaninos, Liliana and Edgardo!)

From the top, there was almost a 360-degree view of Lake Nahuel Huapi on one side, and the hills, forest and other lakes on the other side.

There was a beautiful overlook point with chairs, where people were sitting and staring out over the lake, just drinking in the beautiful view. A family came, and the mom had prepared a cake and pretended to sell it to her three kids, “charging” them each a few pesos.

 

Another day, I took a 40-minute bus ride out to the Municipal Park Llao Llao, about a 20-minute walk from the last bus stop where they leave you at Hotel Llao Llao.

There are a ton of trails in this park and you could spend all day exploring all the different nooks and crannies or just take a leisurely hike along one of the trails.

I spent most of the day walking around Lago Moreno, and incredibly serene and gorgeous lake that I just couldn’t stop taking photos of.

 

Interestingly enough, I would be spending about a month in quarantine at the opposite end of this lake (not visible from where I was because it is quite large).

Famous Footnotes:

*A huge part of the economy is based around tourism, including the winter ski season. Many friends I met were guides.

**The green bandana is a symbol representing women’s rights and specifically a call for safe and legal abortion as an option for women. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is currently a hot topic and many people brought it up in conversations we had.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part IV: The Lakes Region

It was in Chos Malal that my destiny with Liliana and Edgardo began.

Panoramic of the town of Chos Malal, from “la ruta” (the highway)

Edgardo is a doctor and Liliana an accountant and a life coach. They also have a construction business (and no, I have no idea if they ever sleep). One day, they decided that they were going to quit their jobs and travel for a month. So they headed off in their pick-up truck from San Juan to begin their journey through the Patagonia in Argentina and Chile.

As they were telling me about their decision, they called themselves crazy for taking such a risk, for deciding to embark on this adventure. I asked them why they thought they were crazy – did their kids and other family members call them crazy? They thought about it and replied that no, no one else had called them crazy. Then, in sync, they both said, “we call ourselves crazy”. They laughed at their surprising synchronized response and then high-fived each other. And I thought to myself, “I like these people.”

They let me join them on their way to the lakes region where they would head off to cross into Chile. (They later confided that they had been kind of nervous to give a ride to a stranger; it was very much out of their normal comfort zone. I guess that in the same way that my travels have opened my mind and led me to step out of my comfort zone and into new experiences, it had done the same for them.)

We weren’t strangers for long. On the ride, they shared some of their favorite music and presented me with the theme song of my journey “Ruta 40″ by La Renga. They then continued to introduce me to the cornerstones of “rock nacional” or Argentina rock (G.I.T., Charly Garcia, Fito Páez, Soda Estereo), and a range of other music that they love (Alejandro SanzLos Pericos, Pablo Alborán, Jorge Drexler, Joan Manuel Serrat, and Silvio Rodriguez). The experience reminded me how music can be such a uniting part of culture and people’s personal stories, and how powerful it is when people can connect over it and share it.*

When we parted ways, I was left with a reminder to follow my dreams, invest in things that that I’m interested in, and not let myself be fettered to the idea of maximizing my income or savings. And to not be afraid to sometimes just see where the road takes me.

It was sad to see them go, but it turns out that that was not the last I saw of them. Later, I saw them pass by in their truck when I was in Villa La Angostura! They honked and waved and we caught up by text message later. Then, a few days later, I was hiking through a park in Bariloche, lost in thought, when… who do I run into? Edgardo and Liliana! I have to point out here that there are countless places to go hiking in and around Bariloche, so it was quite a coincidence to run into them for a THIRD time during our travels! We took that as a sign that we were destined to be friends and so we have stayed in touch.**

City park in Junín de los Andes

I parted ways with Liliana and Edgardo in the gorgeous area of “Junin de los Andes” and “San Martin de los Andes”. This is the beginning of the stretch of La Ruta 40 called “Camino de los Siete Lagos” or “Seven Lakes Route”, which starts in San Martín de los Andes and ends in Villa la Angostura. (Though one continues to see beautiful lakes as you continue past Villa la Angostura to Bariloche and on towards El Bolsón!)

It was here, outside of San Martin de los Andes, where I stayed in one of the most gorgeous spots of my trip – along one of those incredible lakes, Lago Faulkner. The weather was perfect – the sun was still strong enough to warm you up during the day, but it got quite chilly at night. And the wind!!! I always heard the wind in the Patagonia was strong. I don’t know if it was just this day or just this particular area, but the wind didn’t just blow, it whipped by! Walking along the lake, there were parts where the wind died down, but where the wind blew across the lake, it made waves as big as you could see on an ocean shore.

When the sun was shining strongly on the area of the lake where the trees blocked the wind, I took time to jump in the lake and go for a swim. Yep, it was freezing. I was glad those “polar bear swims” in Girl Scouts had prepared me for this. But once I was in, it felt good and I swam around for about 20 minutes, enjoying the crystal clear water and surprised every time the waves would lap me in the face.

Oscar, a former policeman who now helped look over some properties in the area, took me hiking around one lake and told me stories of some of the characters that he had met around the area. Many people come through and camp around the lake, but he had once even seen someone who came and stayed for more than a year, supposedly writing or working on some creative project. He also once came across a very unprepared camper who was freezing in her tent and he quite possibly saved her life by giving her a warmer place to stay. One of my favorite discoveries was that in one of the properties he took care of, there were some sculptures by a famous Argentine artist that worked with recycled materials.

The culture of the area kind of reminded me of the rural part of Texas where I grew up half-time, in that it has a big outdoors culture – fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, and watching shows like National Geographic and “Naked and Afraid”. I also met a modern day “gaucho” here. He was riding a horse to go check on his land and his animals.

The place where I stayed was literally off the grid. It got its electricity from a water turbine generator that was powered by water piped down to the house from high up in the nearby hills.

Water turbine power generator

In my travels so far, I had heard multiple times about the popular drink Fernet and Coke that had originated in the city of Cordoba, but was popular throughout the country. Finally I had my chance to try it with Oscar. Fernet is a grape-based spirit made with a mixture of a variety of herbs. It naturally has a bitter flavor, which is probably why they mix it with Coke. Originally from Italy, it was brought over by the great Italian immigration to Argentina in the early 1900s and is so popular here that they built a distillery in the country, and Argentina accounts for 75% of the world-wide consumption. Since Fernet is basically the unofficial official drink of Argentina, I had to try it.

 

Oscar also introduced me to the card game “escoba” (“broom”), which uses a Spanish deck of cards similar to the traditional poker deck… but completely different. It does not include the 8, 9 and 10 cards, so the jack is worth 8 (though it is marked with a “10”), there’s a horse worth 9 (though it is marked with an “11”), and the king is worth 10 (though it is marked with a “12”). To score points, you then have to make hands that add up to 15, remembering that some cards aren’t actually worth their face value. In conclusion, it is really confusing and challenging (but fun).

Speaking of confusing, that night there was an important Argentina fútbol (soccer) moment, that I only kind of understand. There were two important matches that would determine the champion of the Argentina Superliga Tournament. (Which is not to be confused with the Copa de la Superliga, which follows this tournament.) There are many fútbol clubs in Argentina, but the two most famous, with the longest history and the most fans across the nation are Boca Juniors and River Plate (pronounced “Ree-bear”). We watched the River game (Oscar’s preferred team), and unfortunately they tied, giving the championship to Boca Juniors.

The next day, I did yoga surrounded by incredible hills and crystal clear lakes before saying my goodbyes to the lakes region and my new friend Oscar and heading off to Bariloche.

 

Famous Footnotes:

*For you music lovers, I threw in a few links for you to have a taste of the soundtrack of our journey together. (Hopefully sharing this music with you makes up for my failure to be able to share music with them since I had been reserving the space on my phone for photos. Note to self for future trips: Take at least a few of my favorite songs along, especially if they’re somewhat representative of American culture (whatever that means!))

**(They had been able to cross into Chile and see part of the “Carretera Austral”, but their trip got cut short (like all of us) in mid-March, and they had to return back to San Juan, where they are now safe and sound, riding out the physical isolation measures, like the all of us.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part III: Mendoza’s Patagonia

I was heading south through “Mendoza’s Patagonia,” – the part of Argentina in the province of Mendoza that is located just north of the “official” Patagonia, which starts in the province of Neuquen. (I may have made up the term “Mendoza’s Patagonia” but it works.)

I had heard that the Patagonia is known for being more expensive than the north of Argentina, except for gas prices, because it is the major fossil fuel production region of Argentina. So it wasn’t so surprising that one of my first encounters was a guy about my age that worked in oil and gas. Martín lived in Buenos Aires but worked for an oil and gas company that was paying for him and his family to live in Malargüe, and they had been there for about a year. Those perks came at a price though because he said that weekend was going to be the first weekend he had off of work in the whole month.

Later I met Claudia, one of those unique and wonderful people that I connected with in a special way despite the fact that we were very different. I immediately recognized that she had a kind spirit, complemented by a strong personality, with a subtle hint of underlying anxiety.

She is a teacher in the tiny town of Ranquil Norte but lives in Malargüe (about 3-4 hours away). During the school year she stays the week in Ranquil Norte, living with a family there, and then takes the bus to be in Malargüe with her husband for the weekends.

Her husband just retired and didn’t know what to do with himself since she’s still working, so was coaching him through it (“you can visit your kids, go see new places, and when I retire we’ll go see new places, and sometimes just go to the park and drink mate”). Because she’s a teacher in a rural area, she’ll get to retire in a couple of years too. In Argentina, men retire at 65 and women at 60, but for teaching in a rural area one can retire a few years early.

Claudia taught me the proper way to pour hot water into the mate (“mah-tay“), because there is a technique that seems to be common across all of Argentina, and as her co-pilot, I was responsible for keeping the mate filled. She had a special electric mate that I had never seen before – it could be kept warm by plugging it in to the cigarette lighter in the car.

As we got to know each other, Claudia shared some personal stories about a rough and abusive young adulthood that she had ultimately overcome to find a peaceful and healthy life with her current husband. However, she confided in me, something had recently triggered some of her past traumas to resurface and she was working through them now (which might have explained the nervousness I sensed in her). She used a really great analogy that stuck with me. “Sometimes we do a good job of cleaning up the house and keeping it well maintained, but we left that one room in the back of the house with all the junk in it, locked up. Well, now is the time where I have to open up that room and start cleaning it out.”

One of the reasons we connected well was because we both really love writing, and she is the second person in my life that has told me that everyone should write a book in their life.*

We passed incredible landscapes of mountains, hills, and volcanoes. In fact, I couldn’t believe the number of volcanoes I saw off off to the left as we were heading south! I pulled out my map and realized that we were in fact passing through the Land of the Volcanoes. (I made that term up. If you look on a map, there is one area along the highway teeming with volcanoes, so it seems appropriate.)

The volcanoes are located in an area that has been named a provincial reserve called La Payunia, and includes more than 800 volcanic cones. (As a traveler one learns that there is no possible way that you can see everything that you want to see, and so this one was one of those places added to the list for future exploration.) But along the road, we could see huge black rocks – clearly dried lava from a past eruption, and even a canyon made of black lava rock.

 

In Ranquil Norte, the only place to get wifi was in the municipality building, so I headed there to log my whereabouts. The municipal building was basically a house – with kitchen, rooms with bunk beds, and a reception area. Since it is such a small town, people from the district municipality often come through and spend the night there as they make their way around the different rural towns administering services. I had arrived just as a group of three guys from the district municipality had grilled out for lunch and they invited me to share the “asado” (sausage and steak cooked on the grill) with them.

 

Along the highway I had seen quite a few bikers, and when I got to Chos Malal, I actually got the pleasure of meeting one of them. Dario is from Rosario and works with water pumps in high-rise buildings and had taken a month-long vacation on his motorcycle to explore the south. He had hesitated about doing something so “selfish”, but his (grown) children had encouraged him to do it. He said he was glad he had listened to them because it had been an incredible experience. Although he had had his moments of doubts that very same day.

That day we had passed a long section (more than an hour) of road that was not paved. Even Claudia in her pickup truck was really nervous about driving on that part, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that on a motorcycle it was tough. Apparently, it was so tough that Dario even asked himself a multiple times what he had been thinking and doubted if he would make it through. But he got through it and at the end of the day he was glad he had survived it and had overcome the challenge to be able to continue his journey and arrive in that cute little town of Chos Malal.

Chos Malal is located where “Neuquen” is written on the map. (Source: Wikipedia)

 

In addition to being a cute town, Chos Malal is the half-way point along La Ruta 40, which connects the northern border of Argentina (in the city of La Quiaca) with the southern-most part of Argentina to el Cabo Virgenes.

Most travelers who want to visit the Argentinian Patagonia take a flight to Bariloche, El Califate, or Ushuaia. After-all, the distances in Argentina are long – crossing Argentina from north to south is about the same distance as crossing the length of the US from east to west. (The journey I was taking, from Jujuy in the north to Ushuaia in the south, along La Ruta 40, is about 5,000 km or 3,100 mi – the equivalent of driving from Augusta, Maine to Los Angeles, CA.)

Spoiler alert: I only ever made it into northern Patagonia, but I don’t regret any minute of it! Stay tuned for the last chapter of my journeys along La Ruta 40.

Famous Footnotes

*Maybe this will one day turn into a book, but for now, here is my story in bite-sized pieces.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part II: Malargüe

Heading south from Mendoza along “La Ruta 40”, one passes through Malargüe, which is a small, enchanting little town, where I met some really wonderful people.

Guillermo is an agricultural engineer that lives in Malargüe and runs a farm that grows potatoes and garlic. He is involved in the Workaway program and hosts travelers from all over the world that help out on the farm and stay for free at his place. He also happens to teach at one of the rural schools and is doing a project with his students where they make potable water by evaporating water in a green-house-like system, capturing and condensing the vapor.

Headed south towards Malargüe, we travel parallel to the cordillera (mountain range) that divides Argentina and Chile, with an amazing view of those majestic mountains out the passenger side window.

For some reason, the movie “Alive” about the rugby team whose airplane crashed into the snowy mountains came to mind. Moments later, Guillermo pointed to one of the peaks saying that it was the mountain where the Uruguay rugby team crashed! (I have no idea how my brain made that association; the subconscious is a powerful thing!) He went on to explain that if they had walked towards the Argentine side of the mountain, it would have actually been a shorter and easier hike to salvation, but they had no idea from where they were and they hiked through the toughest and longest part towards Chile.

That afternoon, I came across this great little spot along the highway, kind of in the middle of nowhere, called Manqui Malal. I went to investigate and found that it was a privately-owned conservation area. There was a restaurant, a campsite, and a few cabins, and they offered guided tours of the surrounding canyon-like area. And there were dogs, sheep, and chickens wandering around. Exactly the type of place where I wanted to stay! #eco-tourism!

Luckily, I had arrived just in time for the afternoon guided tour! I didn’t have time to store my things in the cabin, but they assured me it was safe to just leave them there in the restaurant. It may seem like a crazy thing to do – to trust strangers in the middle of place where you’ve never been before. But I got such a good vibe from the staff and the family eating there in the restaurant, and having had such good experiences in all the small, rural towns I’d been through, I actually felt completely comfortable trusting people here.

The guide was a young woman who did an awesome job explaining the different rock formations we saw – how they were formed and where they fit into the history of the Earth.

 

I was not the only participant on the tour – there was a woman and a man about my age and three kids between 5 and 10 years old. I could not believe it when I learned that the woman was an American from Minnesota! She had lived in Argentina for about 7 years, married an Argentine man and they were currently living in MN but visiting Argentina for about a month. I could not believe that I had run into another American in this tiny little spot on the side of the highway (not even a major tourist attraction) in the middle of Argentina!

As we explored the area and hiked to a waterfall, I chatted with the American woman. Her kids were growing up speaking Spanish and English and they were doing homeschool. (In retrospect, I realize that the social distancing measures must not be impacting their lessons!) She explained that she really loved the experience of home schooling so far, especially because they found that they had quite a lot of free time to do more active things after the lessons – which both she and the kids liked. She was really proud that her kids had scored really well on the state tests they take every year, and her 10-ish year-old daughter interjected, explaining that she had scored really well in math and science and less in English, and then continued to talk about her lessons. It was pretty cute to see her interest in her education and her ability to talk easily and confidently with adults.

After enjoying the refreshing waterfall, I hiked through the canyon where I met a couple my age from Buenos Aires sitting on a large boulder and drinking mate.

The sky had clouded up and the guide had warned me that if it started raining I should immediately start heading back because the canyon is prone to flash floods. So I headed quickly to the end of the canyon, and as it started to drizzle I hurried back, leaping from boulder to boulder, until I arrived at the base camp.

Having arrived here after spending a few days in the city (Mendoza), I was amazed by the absolute, complete silence (except for once every hour when a car passed on the highway). I had one of the best night’s sleep of my whole journey that night – which was much-needed to prepare me for my long journey ahead.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part I: Salta

My journey on “La Ruta 40” has been a unique adventure that I will never forget and that is impossible to describe in detail unless I write a book (which I might.) What really marked my journey, even more than the amazing landscapes, were the people I met along the way.

It was an unforgettable experience of connecting and sharing with so many different people, and just being overwhelmed by the generosity of people. In some ways, this has been the heart of my journey – where I’ve really had the opportunity to do what I came to do – connect with people and share experiences, getting a glimpse into the lives and hearts of people here.

In the next few posts, I’ll try to share some of those encounters (as well as the landscapes behind the conversations).

Part I – Salta
Salta is a city in northern Argentina, just south of Jujuy. In Spanish, “salta” means jump. So I did.

And in so doing, I met a French traveler, Thierry, and we became travel buddies for the day.

We explored the city parks together, tasted some ham and cheese empanadas, and people-watched, as the parks were full of people enjoying the beautiful weekend day.

In Salta, I stayed with Facundo, or “Facu” (a common name here). From the moment we met, we had some incredible conversations, so much so that we chatted into the night even though we were both running on very little sleep. But this is why I couchsurf – it’s a chance to meet someone from a different city, a different country, a different reality, and share experiences.

Facu is a super sharp guy around my age, studying biology because, he explained, that any job he got would require him to work a lot of hours and probably still not pay great, so he’d rather study something he really loves so that he can at least be doing something he’s passionate about. He’s a realist. He said I left him feeling more inspired and empowered that he could have a positive impact on the world. Which was incredibly flattering and in turn made me feel inspired!

In the grocery store line, I met the nicest woman. You know how the grocery lines can be pretty savagely competitive – everyone wants to be first in line and find the shortest line, especially when the wait is long. Well, this woman went out of her way to try to find the shortest line for me since I only had 2 items. (And I wasn’t even in a hurry, she was just being incredibly thoughtful.) We started chatting and it turns out that she’s an accountant that works in a government agency looking at the economic side of the “triple bottom line” (economics-environment-social impacts) for projects – coincidentally, my line of work and my passion!

On my way out of Salta, I met Valentina who is my age, and a lawyer from Buenos Aires. She had quit her job and before moving to the next one, was taking a vacation with her partner (who was from Paraguay and was traveling through South America). They had been to Patagonia together and invited me to join them exploring a beautiful part of “La Ruta 40” as they headed to Califate, a tiny town in the wine region.

They also spoke English so we ended up speaking a mix of English and Spanish, conversing the whole way and stopping to see a few of the most interesting spots – Garganta del Diablo and El Anfiteatro (which happened to be filled with tourists at this time of year*).

When I told Valentina about my Peace Corps work in Peru with water systems, she told me that she has been doing a volunteer project for eight years, working with a small community called Arbol Blanco in the province of Santiago de Estero. With an NGO from Buenos Aires, they work to empower the youth and help them take advantage of educational opportunities that could give them more professional options as they become adults.

We completely geeked out about sustainable community development work, really connecting with some of the similar experiences we’ve had. Similar to my experience working with Engineers Without Borders, she has witnessed the importance of being a long-term community partner and facilitator – focusing on cultural exchange and helping the community achieve its own stated goals, (rather than trying to do short-term projects based on funder priorities, which have a high failure rate). As we parted ways, I was excited to have met another kind and kindred spirit, (and also excited about the possibility of lending a hand if they needed any WASH (Water And Sanitation & Hygiene) expertise).

As if I hadn’t met enough wonderful people, I finally met Gabriela who went out of her way to drive me to meet up with my friends. A fellow lover of the night sky, she pointed out the observatory nearby and we made plans to go if we ever crossed paths again in the future. As we went our separate ways, I didn’t hear from her again, until one day, a month later when Argentina enforced the mandatory isolation measures, she messaged me to check in and offered me a place to stay if I should need it.

The beginnings of my journey along “La Ruta 40” were renewing my faith in the good of humanity and showing me the power of human connection and cultural exchange.** I was excited to see what lie ahead and only hoped that I hadn’t used up all my good luck.

 

Famous Footnotes

*This was during Carnaval season, which happens while school is out and is when the majority of people take vacations in Argentina.

**”Se que hay mucha mas gente buena que mala. Pasa que los malos hacen mas ruido.” – Dany Reimer
(“I’m certain there are more good people in this world than bad. The thing is that the bad ones make more noise.”) – Dany Reimer (Police officer in one of the toughest areas of Buenos Aires)

San Juan, Argentina

I woke up in Pagancillo that morning, said my goodbyes to my hosts Maricel and Dario, and with my French friends Silvia and Michele we headed off to the main entrance of Parque Talamaya.

I had a tough decision to make this morning. Silvia and Michele had invited me to tag along with them on their journey driving to Bariloche over the next few weeks. They planned to take their time, go off the beaten path, and stop to see wonders of nature along the way, staying in cute, small towns. I loved their company and that was an ideal way of traveling.

However, I really wanted to try to make it to Tierra del Fuego in the southern tip of Argentina – “el fin del mundo”, before winter hit (usually around April), so I could enjoy some hiking and camping there. And winter was coming. (In more ways than I knew at the time.)

So as much as I wanted to take my time and see everything I could along the way, I also had a sense of urgency to move a little faster towards the south. But that would mean leaving my new friends (and a secure ride) and looking for another ride south to San Juan.

It was bittersweet saying our goodbyes to Silvia and Michele because we had had such a great time together, but we were also excited for the adventures that each of us had lying ahead and we knew we’d be able to live vicariously through each other.

As I continued that character-building search for someone to give me a ride to San Juan, I came across a family with adult children my age camping in the park. They told me they were headed to San Juan in the afternoon and in the meantime I could hang out in their campsite, make myself at home, even nap in their tent if I wanted to. Months into Argentina, and I am still amazed by the friendliness and hospitality of people!

I made myself comfortable at a nearby picnic table, listening to the silence of the desert, watching the sun creep up into the sky, seeing a few birds and rodents scurry through the bushes every now and then, taking in the beauty of the colors and landscapes of the desert.

After a revitalizing session of reflection and meditation, I saw my friends with the white van from Texas, Danika and Brady, appear in the campsite. We chatted for a while about our adventures and then debated if it would be worth the risk for me ride with them to San Juan. The van didn’t have a third seat and the police really like to pull people over for not wearing a seatbelt, (usually to try to get a bribe out of them). Since they have Texas plates they said they had been stopped almost every day of their trip, but since they had everything in order they had avoided any real trouble and certainly hadn’t paid any bribes.

In the end, we decided to take the risk, and we enjoyed a wonderful few hours together as we shared travel stories, life experiences, listened to podcasts, and enjoyed the beauty of the landscapes of central Argentina.

I was lucky enough to live vicariously through them as they told me a little about their journeys through Mexico, Central America (even my beloved El Salvador!), and down through many parts of South America that I had also traversed (and some I hadn’t!)

Arriving in San Juan, we parted ways hoping to meet up again soon since we were headed in the same direction.

I headed off to meet up with my couch-surfing friend Franco, who was a rugby coach, a chef, and a fanatic for his local fútbol (soccer) club.* Franco and his family welcomed me into their lovely home, even preparing me a delicious dinner.

As Franco headed off to a work meeting that evening, I chatted with his family, who made me feel right at home.

In the morning, we did yoga in his patio, practiced English, and exchanged life stories. In every conversation with every person I’ve met along the way, I’ve learned something and I always seem to pick up some little pearl of wisdom.** One thing that really stood out in my conversation with Franco was his experience with the power of being honest with oneself about one’s feelings or desires, no matter how unacceptable it seems to society. (It kind of reminded me of the RAIN method.) He had witnessed how being truly honest with and accepting oneself had helped people escape horrible cycles of addiction and violence, whereas not being able to be honest had kept people trapped in those harmful cycles.

After a mix of light-hearted and deep conversation, he kindly drove me to the bus stop and helped me find my way downtown.

San Juan was an important Argentina destination for me, mostly because I wanted to meet up with a wonderful friend from college that I hadn’t seen for almost 15 years! Alyson had been living in San Juan since graduation and we had just recently reconnected.

She moved to Argentina to teach English and found that it made more sense for her to complete a teaching degree in the university here than go through all the bureaucracy she’d need to do to transfer her US degree – especially since it was free to attend university here.*** She found the college degree here to be more challenging in many ways compared to her studies in the US, especially because it was based more on oral presentations and oral exams rather than the written exams characteristic of most US universities.

Alyson took me to a restaurant that was one of the only restaurants that had been around since she arrived (most businesses didn’t last very long), and I tried sorrentinos for the first time.

sorrentinos

Later she took me to an ice cream shop that won a national competition for the best ice cream in all of Argentina.

As we shared experiences living in Latin America, we compiled a list of questions (observations) about Argentina:

-Why are there so many white people? (Yes, this question also applies to the US and some of the answers may be surprisingly similar.)

-Why does everyone drink mate (“mah-tay”) from a spherical-shaped mug with a metal straw “bombilla”?

-Why do so many people eat ham and cheese with everything?

-Why is everyone so freaking nice?

 

It was so nice to be able to connect with an old friend before heading off into the great unknown towards my destination, “el fin del mundo”.****

 

Famous Footnotes:

*It’s not uncommon for an Argentine to be crazy about a certain fútbol team here, much like Americans that are crazy about “their team” – be it football, basketball, hockey, baseball, etc. During the world cup, I saw a video where an Argentine was complaining that it was ridiculous that someone would plan their wedding to be during the month of the world cup tournament, because HE certainly wasn’t going to miss a world cup game for a wedding. (Obviously, I have met plenty of Argentines that don’t even care about fútbol, or don’t like it; a stereotype is always just a stereotype, describing and often exaggerating some characteristic of someone.)

**With some people I have gathered entire treasure chests of pearls of wisdom, maybe too much to share here, some stories to personal to share with the world and still respect the confidence between two people, but I will share little bits and pieces as it seems appropriate.

***One can get a university education for free here. There are also private universities that aren’t free as another option.

****The city of Ushuaia, Argentina is commonly known as “fin del mundo” or “the end of the world” because it is the southern-most city in the world.