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.
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.
*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)
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.
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”.****
*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.
I woke up early that morning in “Baldecitos”*, not really sure where I would be sleeping that night.
The French couple I had met, Silvia and Michel, were going to pick me up at 8am to tour the famous Parque Ischigualasto together, so I was pretty excited about that! (I would get a chance to get to know them, and I had overcome the challenge of seeing the park without my own car!)
But after that, my future was uncertain. I was learning to get comfortable with taking things day by day. Sometimes even hour by hour.
(In my travels, I keep a spreadsheet of dates and locations, transportation times and costs, etc., but it is more like a rough guide than a fixed plan. And the last few days I had really be improvising, especially as I’d discovered cute small towns and these national parks! Squirrel!)
A few minutes before 8am, I headed outside and found a car parked out front where we’d agreed to meet. As I approached, I was greeted by the bright smiling faces of Silvia and Michel, and I was happy to join the excited energy of heading off for a new adventure.
When we arrived at the park we were instructed that we would be joining a caravan of about 5 other vehicles, with the guide at the helm, and we would be stopping at certain spots along the way where we would get out, walk a short way, and the guide would share information with us.
At the first stop, we parked behind a white van with Texas plates. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but it was true that I wasn’t dreaming.
After checking out the landscapes of the “valle de la luna”, I heard a couple my age speaking in English and heading towards the van. Too shy to talk to them, I never learned if they were really from Texas.
Just kidding. If you believed that, you haven’t been reading my blogs enough to know that I’m rarely too shy to talk to someone.
So, it was there in the middle of Argentina, where I met Danika and Brady, a couple that had been living in El Paso, Texas and had been planning to travel through South America. A little over a year ago, their plans started coming together and they decided to do the journey by land from Texas to the southern tip of South America. They bought a van and turned the back part of it into a mini-apartment – equipped with a bed, shelves, cabinets, a stove, and even with walls decorated with photos – and then began their journey south. And now, we had been lucky enough to cross paths here in Parque Ischigualasto!
Parque Ischigualasto was quite a gem, with fossils from as far back as the Triassic Period – 250 MILLION years ago – when Pangea existed! (Remember Pangea? Back when the majority of the continents were united as one continent.)
So the parks (Ischigualasto and Talamapaya) are UNESCO World Heritage sites because they help tell the story of the evolution of land and life on Earth across time.
With so much time on its hands, the Earth had done some pretty creative things. Like creating these perfectly-shaped spherical rocks.
Precariously balanced towers of rock.
That sometimes do topple over.
I saw where the ancient Egyptians got their idea for the Sphynx. (The natural world had already created it!)
One stop included a museum where they told us about the dinosaurs and fossils that have been found in the area (many dinosaurs have been found in Argentina!) They explained how they carefully excavate fossils and determine their age (carbon dating), how they determine where they should dig to look for interesting things, and how they try to understand the geological processes that cause changes across the millennia.
The final stop was a showcase of the rock formations in their different stages of evolution, so you could essentially see the process that leads to the creation of the mushroom formations, as it happens over thousands of years.
Loving my time with Michel and Silvia and having also made two new friends, Danika and Brady, I realized that as a group of 5, we could do the tour of “cañon arco iris” and “ciudad perdida” (Rainbow Canyon and Lost City). (This is the tour that leaves from the southern entrance of Parque Talampaya and leaves only if a group forms.) They were all interested in the idea, so instead of trying to head to San Juan, I continued on with them, back towards Parque Talamapaya.
On the way, Silvia, Michel, and I shared travel stories and talked about everything under the sun. I learned that Michel had actually been to Talampaya before, more than a decade ago, before it was a national park. At that time, he had been able to drive his vehicle through the park to see the sights. Now only the tour companies are permitted to drive in the park, to minimize the human impact.
Michel had a project collecting photos of all the different animal crossing signs they saw along the way, so I took advantage and joined in the game – which also included trying to spot all the animals from the signs.
We arrived at the ArcoIris entrance to Talampaya just in time to be able to do an afternoon tour, and we even picked up an extra for the group – Alicia, a woman from Mar de Plata (a city in Argentina) that was on vacation traveling by motorcycle. (We also greeted a French cyclist passing through, brave or crazy enough to be cycling through the desert.)
The hike through Cañon Arco Iris and Ciudad Perdida was time travel through millions of years. We started with the red “youngest” rock formations and as we walked along we passed through tens of millions of years, finally arriving at the grey oldest rock formations, named “Ciudad Perdida” because of their shapes.
Along the way, we could see how the seismic activity that created the Andes had lifted parts of earth’s crust out of the ground, exposing different layers of rock.
And we could see how the sun, wind, and rain changes the rock over millions of years, turning it into sand and reshaping it.
We also saw where the Incas might have gotten their idea for using rectangular stones for building walls that could withstand seismic activity…right there from nature herself.
You know when you meet someone that is so passionate about something that even if you never were interested in the topic before, they transmit their energy and enthusiasm to you and ignite an interest in you? (I’ve had some really good teachers with this talent, for example.) Well, our guide was like that. He was an easy-going and soft-spoken person, and when he talked about the the rocks and plants in the park and the history and science around it all, you could tell that he was really passionate about sharing this beautiful place with others (in his easy-going, soft-spoken kind-of-way).
Our guide Camilo lives in Pagancillo and the company that offers this tour is actually a co-op of independent guides, separate from the larger company at the main entrance of the park.
We finished the tour in the evening, and luckily, Silvia and Michel also loved staying in small towns, so I was happy to have already scouted out Pagancillo, the small town near the park. And I was really happy to be returning there to be able to see the friends I had made there, Dario and Marisel, once again.
That night, sharing wine and grapes (from their grape vine) with the family, the stars were shining brightly and it was a perfect opportunity to bust out the stargazing app and look at the stars. They were fascinated, as they hadn’t had the constellations pointed out to them before. So even though I was exhausted from a long day (that started in Baldecitos and had the surprise ending of being back here in Pagancillo), we walked down to the river where there were no lights to see the night sky in all its glory.**
*Baldecitos is the small town of about 10 houses, that is about 15km from the entrance to Parque Ischigualasto.
**While I was impressed by the centaur, whose hind leg is made up of the southern cross (only visible in the southern hemisphere), they were more impressed by the dog Sirius and Virgo.
The scenery on the way to the National Park Talampaya was enough to assure me that the detour to visit these parks was going to be worthwhile.
My plan was to enjoy the park all day today, and then find some nice people to give me a ride to the small town, “Baldecitos”, near the provincial park of Ischigualasto about an hour away.*
I arrived early to the park to figure out options for excursions through the park, and I opted for a group hike through a part of the canyon only accessible by foot. (If we returned early enough, I might be able to also do one of the more popular jeep rides that takes you all the way through the canyon to the other side).** Unfortunately, our hike kept getting delayed because a few of the group members that had reserved were apparently on their way but stuck in traffic.
While I was sitting at a table, trying really hard not to be impatient (I guess I had used all my patience the day before waiting in the shade of the fig tree), I overheard a group speaking in American English. My ears perked up because I haven’t met many American tourists during my travels. And while American tourists in Patagonia are fairly common, here in the middle of northern Argentina, it is not nearly as common to encounter other Americans.
I hesitated to introduce myself because they were all deeply engaged in their conversation, (and while in Latin America it would be rude NOT TO interrupt and greet someone, these were US Americans so it could be considered rude to interrupt.) I finally decided to introduce myself and I’m glad I did!
They were two couples (older than me but young at heart!) that love traveling and seeing new places around the world. They found themselves there all because American Airlines was going to stop running their route to Cordoba, Argentina, and one of the guys decided he wanted to take advantage of it before it was discontinued. And from there, things just started coming together for the two couples – who hadn’t seen each other in a long time (hence their deeply engaged conversation) – to be able to meet up there in Parque Talampaya.
It was so great to share travel stories and hear about some of their unique experiences (like Nude Zealand!), especially since they have been traveling for decades – (they gave me a few pro tips)! I was surprised to hear that their grown children were somewhat indignant about their decision to travel around the world instead of staying close by, near the grandchildren. (I don’t have children so maybe I don’t understand, but, Mom and Dad, you did your time – thank you! Now, get out and go see the world!)
When it was finally time to head out for my hike, I admit I was a little skeptical. We left at noon under the hot desert sun, and I was pretty sure we were going to shrivel up and dehydrate. But it turns out the wind picks up mid-day, and we took it slow, took advantage of shade spots, and stopped frequently, so it was actually didn’t feel like I was walking in the desert at the hottest part of the day.
The hike was all I had hoped for and more. Amazing landscapes.
Rock formations from the Triassic period (250 million years ago) – that’s before the formation of the Andes.
More recent dune formations where vegetation can grow.
Even ancient rock paintings from thousands of years ago.
The coolest part was when we came upon a herd of guanaco. Not only was it the first guanaco that I see in the wild, we were right there close to them, in their natural habitat! They let us get about 20 feet away before they finally ran off.
I think the thing that impressed me the most was that we could see where a fault line passed because there was a huge diagonal crack in the walls of the canyon on both sides.
Our guide drew a 24-hour clock in the sand and explained that if the history of the Earth were compared to one day, where the Earth formed at midnight, life appeared at about 3-4am, and the rock formations in the park (that formed 250 million years ago) formed at just one minute and 30 seconds until midnight at the end of the day! (We humans appeared at about 6-10 seconds until the end of the day!)
I stood in awe, with the beautiful, 250 milion-year-old canyon walls towering above me. I felt so tiny and at the same time I felt that I was traveling time, and through that time travel I was connecting to the extensive history of this planet, and somehow that made me both tiny and as big and as old as the planet, all at the same time.
When I got back from the hike that afternoon, it was time for that character-building activity of asking for a lift to Baldecitos, the little town near the entrance to the provincial park Ischicualasto. It shouldn’t seem like a big deal, but for a person raised in the US and raised to be self-sufficient and independent, it is a bit of a psychological challenge. One has to overcome embarrassment, shyness, and fear of rejection, all at once. So I set myself up near the parking lot and asked all the people who drove up where they were headed, and if they were going my direction if they would have room for one more person. About 5 different cars arrived and everyone was very friendly in their rejection, but they were not going my direction.
As one of the excursions returned, I found an older couple that was headed that direction and they were happy to give me a ride. The woman, Ana, was in her 60’s and she is a psychologist in Buenos Aires. They were at the end of their vacation and she had to get back to work after the holidays. She had a private practice and then also worked with the government to do psychological evaluations for people applying for commercial drivers’ licenses. She talked about how she had backpacked through Europe when she was younger and continued to travel as much as possible. They were then kind enough to go a few minutes out of their way to drop me off in Baldecitos, waiting to make sure I found a place to stay.
The woman who owned the hospedaje en Baldecitos was about my age and she lived next door with her little boy of about 12-13 years old. After I got settled in, I saw she was outside spraying the ground with a water hose to control the dust, and I came out and asked her about life in Baldecitos. She was a farmer, with milk and beef cows and also received some extra income from tourists passing through for the park. She was born and raised there in Baldecitos, which has just about 10-15 families living there permanently, with maybe up to 25-20 houses total! (Definitely the smallest town I’ve been in so far.)
A few months prior, they had constructed a cell tower in the town that was also supposed to also bring wi-fi for the community, but it was really spotty, with some of my whatsapp messages delaying a few hours to send.
There was a “comedor” (small, simple, family-style restaurant) near my hospedaje where I went to see if I could get something to eat. While there, an older French couple came in also asking about dinner and about logistics for going to the park the next day. The man and older woman in the comedor told us they would serve dinner at 9pm, and that the park opened at 8am and was about 12km down the road.***
This park – Ischigualasto – is the park that you visit by driving through, caravan style, with a guide, stopping along the way to see certain parts. (I had read on blogs that many people without their own transportation look for other people to give them a lift through the park.) The couple seemed really nice and friendly, so I took that opportunity to ask if they had room for one more person, and they assented and said we could chat over dinner.
Over dinner I learned that they had rented a car and were driving down La Ruta 40, with destination Bariloche, but looking for cute little towns and beautiful, hidden gems along the way, just like me (except with a car). They already have grown kids, but they also have this beautiful child-like energy, getting really excited about the places they’ve seen and what there is to see ahead. My kind of people. We hit it off immediately and agreed to meet at 8am the next morning to go explore the Parque Ischigualasto together.
* Dario (the park guide whose house I had stayed at in Pagancillo the night before) had assured me that many people go between the two parks and that I wouldn’t have a problem finding a ride from Talampaya to Ischigualasto. Since that was consistent with the blogs I’d read on the internet, I felt good about the plan.
**I like to know all the options before I make a choice, and here it took me about an hour to understand how it all works (and that’s after having done research online!) It turns out that this is only one of two different park entrances for the National Park Talampaya. At this entrance, there are two companies – one that offers excursions in jeep that leave on a set schedule every few hours, and another that offers hiking or biking excursions. It is all very confusing because the company that offers jeep excursions is also in charge of selling the Park Entrance fee, which makes it seem like their excursions are the only options. But if you ask around, you find that there’s a small office around the corner that offers hikes and bike rides if enough people are interested in forming a group. As a third option for exploring the park, there is another park entrance about 10km down the road, where a different company offers an excursion in jeep to see another part of the park called “Cañon Arco Iris” (Rainbow Canyon) and “La Ciudad Perdida” (Lost City). I also heard that there is another company forming that will do excursions to another part of the park next year.
***I chatted for a while with the couple in the comedor in Baldecitos asking them about life in Baledcitos. They presented another point of view about the park. They said that while they weren’t completely opposed to the park and tourism from the park did bring some income, they were kind of frustrated that it put restrictions on their ability to raise animals because it was a protected area (and to prevent accidents with the passing cars). They mentioned that would have liked to maintain the practices of their ancestors in the raising of guanaco and cattle in the wide open spaces. They also said that this provincially-managed park doesn’t provide the same job opportunities for people in the community of Baldecitos, like the nearby national park Talampaya which provides jobs for many people of the nearby town Pagancillo. They did mention that a consultation process was used to create the park, but they felt that their opinion was not considered. (The complexity of the situation was not lost on me, since I am reading about Latin American history during my travels. For example, I confirmed that they were specifically referring to their European ancestors who have inhabited those lands for hundreds of years. If you keep going back in time, you come to a point in time where their ancestors usurped the lands of the indigenous people living there. And maybe those indigenous people usurped the lands from someone before them.)
I had been on my way to San Juan, when I found myself in that cute town of Chumbicha where I ended up staying a couple of days. Finally, when it was time to get back on the road to San Juan, I realized that I was really close to the National Park Talampaya and the Provincial Park Ischigualasto. (It took me a week of stumbling over that name before I was able to pronounce it.)
A French friend that I had met in Salta had recommended those parks to me, but it seemed that getting there and enjoying them without a car was quite a challenge. Was I up for the adventure of finding my way there? Or should I just head straight to San Juan? I figured I could ask for more information in the next major city (La Rioja) and make a decision based on what I learned.
I fortuitously caught a ride to La Rioja with two women from Chumbicha – a medical student and her mom. The mom was dropping her off in La Rioja where classes were starting back up for the semester. We filled the entire 1-hour ride with great conversation so that it felt like it ended too soon.
We joked about many cultural differences between the US and Latin America and between big cities and small towns, including the tendency to fire off personal questions to a stranger. She inquired if it had made me uncomfortable when she asked me all those personal questions, and I realized that I hadn’t even noticed.
I had to think back to realize that she had in fact asked me all the personal questions that might be considered intrusive and offensive to someone from the US culture but are typical of conversations among strangers in Latin America – “Are you married? Do you have kids? How old are you? Have you dated someone from here?…”
I guess I’ve gotten used to it, having lived in a small town in Latin America for 3 years. (I wonder if I have started asking people I recently met very personal questions, without realizing it…)
She reaffirmed what I had sensed about the town of Chumbicha. It’s quiet, there are some problems, but there was no real crime, everyone knows everyone, and everyone comes together to help each other out when there is a problem. Like any small community, everyone talks about anything and everything, so while it can be tricky to maintain a private life, she sets boundaries on what she shares with people. And she felt that people really accepted diversity within the community, in terms of lifestyle, religion, and sexual orientation.
As I walked into the bus station in La Rioja, I reflected on all the incredibly friendly people I had met and that little gem of a place I had found just because I had gotten off the bus at a random stop along the way.
So that’s why, about six hours later, I didn’t even think twice about getting off the bus in a small town that appeared on the map close to the parks where I was headed. I had never heard of it before. It wasn’t even mentioned in all the internet research I had done about getting to the parks. But it was located just 20 minutes from the national park, and the bus driver confirmed that there were places to stay there.
So as I gathered my things I went looking for a place to stay. I navigated away from the signs boasting rooms with personal bathroom and a swimming pool, and found a hand-painted sign “hospedaje” outside a tiny convenient store protruding out of a house. I called out and at first no one responded, but I hung around a minute – I’m not sure why, I guess I just had a good feeling about this place. After a minute, a young woman my age came out and told me the owner had just left to sign her kids up for school and was on her way back.
As I waited about 15 minutes for the owner to come back, I thought about how good I have gotten at this patience thing. Normally I would have been seriously bothered by having to wait more than a minute and I might have moved on. But I had no problem waiting, despite the fact that I was hot from the strong sun and hungry from traveling all day.
Some parrots (“loros”) flew overhead, and I took off my backpacks and stood in the shade of a tree. Suddenly something hit me on the shoulder. I looked around and realized that the fig tree I was standing under had just offered me some of its fruit. What great hospitality! As if it had known that I was hot and hungry!
Turns out that the humans were in fact just as kind and hospitable as the tree. After letting me get settled in a private room with its own bathroom and wi-fi, they invited me to share some mate (pronounced “mah-tay”) and some grapes (and raisins) fresh from their grape vine.
OK, I’ve mentioned mate in other posts, but I haven’t explained it yet. Mate is an essential part of Argentine culture. If you know an Argentine, you should know about mate because 99.99% of Argentines drink mate. (I made that statistic up.)
Mate is not just tea. It is a ritual.
Mate is an herb from northeast Argentina (and Paraguy and southern Brazil).
Mate is also the name for the round little insulated cup that you drink mate from (usually made of wood, a gourd “calabaza”, or metal).
It is drunk from a metal straw (“bombilla”) that is placed in the mate in a special way, with the mate tea poured on top. The hot water is poured into the same spot every time so that it forms a small little indention in the tea, but only in one spot, not disturbing the rest of the mate. When you drink mate, you finish all the water in the cup before refilling it. (I have had to learn all this mate etiquette, and I am still too intimidated to prepare a mate myself.)
Most importantly, mate is shared. It is shared with everyone you are with. But it is also shared with others as a cordial way of being friendly. (I was on a hike and came across a couple drinking mate on a large boulder. I said hi in passing, and they said hi back and invited me to share their mate, as if it was a natural part of greeting another person.)
It is a group activity.
It is an event (“let’s go drink a mate”).
It is a part of every gathering.
It is taken (along with a thermos of hot water) when you travel, on road-trips, on hikes.
While I’ve never been into sharing drinks with people, the gesture of someone offering you a mate is so nice that I admit that I shared a lot of mates before the arrival of the coronavirus here.
Mate is usually drunk “amargo” (bitter) – just hot water and tea. But some people prefer “mate dulce”, with sugar added.
Before I arrived in Pagancillo, I had only tried mate amargo, but there with Marisel and Dario I experienced mate dulce for the first time.** (I prefer amargo but dulce is also nice.)
As we chatted, I learned that Marisel runs the tienda (convenience store) and Dario works at the National Park where I wanted to go the next day. (That was lucky because I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to get to the park the next morning and he said I could go with him!)
The young woman I had seen when I got there was a visiting park guard renting the room next to mine. When she returned from collecting algarroba (carob) beans, we walked down to the river together, taking our shoes off and following the river all the way back to the main road – a hike she hadn’t done before either.
Like many women my age I have met on this trip, she has a daughter that is just starting college this year. She explained that she lived in La Rioja with her daughter but had been doing the park guard exchange here for about a month and had fallen in love with the town. Now that her daughter is in college, she was thinking of moving to Pagancillo, she loved it so much.
Eating dinner at a local restaurant (on the next block over – the town is just a few blocks wide in each direction), I met a Porteña couple – a couple from Buenos Aires. They invited me to sit with them, and we chatted for hours. They were really passionate about the movement to legalize safe abortions in Argentina (all abortions are illegal in Argentina), arguing that many people end up dying from illegal and unsafe abortions, while others end up requiring extensive assistance from the government to care for unplanned children. (It is one of the larger, more popular movements at the moment in Argentina, and I have met many people along my journeys – men and women alike – that are passionate about it.***)
The information I had found on the internet about how to visit the national park in the area was really not very clear, and my new Porteño friends explained to me that there were actually two different companies, at two different park entrances, that led tours into the park…making it all less clear to me.
When I arrived back home late that night and shared a mate with Dario and Marisel, I learned that the majority of the park guards lived there in Pagancillo, and I would be able to take a van with Dario the next morning to get to the park. I had gotten pretty used to just figuring thing out as I go, so I prepared my things to take the next morning and then fell asleep to the backdrop of small town silence.
I had waken up in a random small town that I had never heard of before arriving (Chumbicha), and now I was falling asleep in another cute, small town that I had never heard of before arriving (Pagancillo). In both places I found a peaceful, almost utopian way of life with incredibly friendly people. I decided that small town hopping was going to be my primary travel strategy from now on.
*Mate photo credit: wikipedia
**No photo credit: I failed to get photos with Dario and Marisel.
***The topic surprisingly came up in many conversations where I never would have expected it to. For example, riding back to Bariloche with an older man who was a cell phone tower technician brought it up and explained that while he would never let his wife to have an abortion, he still thought it should be legal and should be an option for women.
It didn’t have to be this way. We got the virus later than others. We had the good fortune to have seen what worked and what didn’t work in controlling the virus. Southeast Asia controlled it by cracking down fast and hard. Italy let it spiral out of control because they waited and didn’t want to restrict freedoms or hurt the economy (understandably). Knowing the consequences of overloaded hospitals and high death rates, we chose to follow Italy.**
We are now the experiment. We are now risking the lives of family and friends to show whether it was worth it to try to protect economic activity and freedom to move about.
Some said that maybe we could acquire herd immunity if the virus was just left to do its thing, which guided the UK’s weak initial response, but when simulations showed disastrously overwhelmed health care systems under this scenario, they changed course.
Sometimes I ask myself, what in the world motivated US leaders to make this decision? Some say they believed God would make everything ok. My dad always said God gives us brains (in this case, a community of people who have dedicated their lives to studying math, science, and medicine) and if we don’t use them, that’s on us.***
Well, the decisions have been made and I can’t do anything about the past. A wise person told me that dwelling on the past doesn’t do any good; healthy people learn from the past and move forward.
So, my lesson here is that not making swift and informed decisions of prevention is the same as making swift decisions to deal with a bigger, more expensive and extensive problem later.
Now, the moving on part.
Other countries that all acted earlier than us faced overloaded and understaffed and under-equipped hospitals. So, we will have to rise the challenge to address those needs. We will have to use our resources and specific talents to help out where there is need.
It would be nice to have strong federal leadership with a plan, but it is clear that our leadership does not heed advice of experts and their plans seem to revolve around protecting the wealthiest engines of the economy instead of the people that keep that same economy running.
So this is where we come together in a grass roots kind of way, looking towards the experts and community organizers that follow the advice of REAL experts to figure out where we can make a real difference.
This isn’t just about surviving boredom in the quarantine (though that’s important too).**** This is about coming together as a community to help each other out.
I have updated the list of things we can help with from my previous blog, and please let me know if you have others…
What can I do while I’m sitting at home in quarantine? Individual Action – what we need to (and can) do:
“In my experience, success is dependent on how much the public is informed and participates,” Admiral Ziemer said. “This truly is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation.” (b)
Plan for a few months of economic disruption the best you can, and if you can, help those that are more vulnerable and those who can’t work from home and won’t be able to receive income during the quarantine.
Check for a “Virtual Tip Jar” in your area (google it for your area).
Forward your payment to the handyman, keep paying your dog walker or cleaning person if you have one and are able.
Share ideas on how to help in meaningful and practical ways, according to your interests and experiences. Many people are giving free online yoga classes. People are sharing at-home kids activities and home-schooling materials.
Read my blogs about my travels to take a break from the COVID-19 stuff. I promise, I will be returning to sharing my adventures in my next posts!
Most importantly, let’s help each other out and take care of ourselves too. Don’t ignore the anxiety and stress from the situation, accept and manage it by giving yourself some self time, by connecting with others – even if it’s phone calls and video chats.
We’re #1! Not because we don’t make mistakes, but because we get back up again every time.
*Just yesterday (3-27), the JHU dashboard showed the number of US cases jumping past China and Italy. However, that is not to say that just yesterday we had a surge in people contracting the virus; actually it means that it happened a week or two ago. Since it takes between 2-14 days to show symptoms, the data today shows us what was happening about a week ago. This time delay means we also won’t immediately be able to tell if the measures we are putting in place are actually working because we won’t see the effects for a week or two.
**The US has been working hard to bring US citizens home, but it has been doing almost NOTHING to make sure those coming home don’t spread the virus. Eight out of 11 people I know who have gotten back to the states in the last few days told me they had absolutely ZERO screening related to the virus as the entered the US. Two of them had their temperatures taken. One of them was asked if they had been to China, but not asked if they had been through Europe, which is actually the current epicenter.
***This paragraph has been updated because its intention could be easily misinterpreted. My intention of referencing this saying was to point out that we have a well-established scientific and medical community of people that have dedicated their entire lives to studying math, science, and/or medicine so that we as a human society can make better decisions, especially in circumstances like these. The current administration has consistently ignored, downplayed its value, and arrogantly contradicted its recommendations (citing one or two random people that have proposed contradictory theories that go against an entire community of people with evidence), and this situation is one of the more obvious consequences this attitude towards the scientific community.
****I am personally trying to view my time in quarantine as a type of meditation retreat where I am prioritizing time for myself each day and prioritizing time for relaxation. I know this isn’t as easy for everyone, depending on the circumstances, but I encourage everyone to try to carve out some self time. If not now, when?
Thank you to everyone who contributed ideas of how we can help, including: Monica Kang, Emily Tolos, Katherine Buckingham, Melanie Vant, Michael MacHarg, Catherine H. Clark, Stephen Zerfas, Stuart Murphey, Adrian Reif, Alyzza May, Stacy Kane, Nora L, Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, Harvey Floyd II.
I found it incredibly helpful when a friend sent a summarized document with good sources about key information on COVID-19, so I thought I would do the same in case it is helpful for anyone.*
It has been tricky to filter through and find reliable information. However, after many days of intense investigation and the help of other people’s investigations, I was able to find some emerging themes of agreement by the majority of experts (as opposed to politicians and journalists) that I’ve compiled here. I am not an expert, and I have done my best to keep my opinion out of this and only repeat what experts have said.
If you have come across better sources, contradicting information, other ways to help, or additional important information, please let me know so we can keep each other informed and wade through the good and bad information to make the best decisions for our families and communities.
Why we’re worried: Overload of hospitals due to the rapid spread and respiratory problems caused by this virus. (Leading to having to choose which patients will receive critical treatment and which will be left to luck, as they have had to do in Italy. (a))
What we need to do: Quarantine ourselves NOW and prepare to respond to increasing hospital overload – lack of personnel and lack of equipment (ventilators, oxygen, and PPE (masks and gloves) for health professionals). Note that this could last as short as two weeks, but more likely a month or more.
But can’t we just quarantine affected areas? – To some extent but not really. Why?
Symptoms can take more than a week to show up, so seemingly healthy people continue to infect others, and areas that seem to be free from cases could actually have cases.
The virus has spread to all 50 states rather than being contained in one or a few controllable areas, due to not being able to test and contain it early on. Since it’s too late to easily isolate it, a more extensive quarantine response is needed to control it.
We don’t have enough tests to do widespread testing and be able to isolate all existing clusters.
But do we really all have to stay at home in this draconian measure of isolation? -Well, yes, if we want to minimize the overload of hospitals and extra deaths caused by that overload.(a)
For the measure to work, a full quarantine is needed for at least a couple of weeks. At this stage in the spread of the virus, full quarantine is the only thing that has been shown to help slow the spread. (b)
Examples of how other countries have handled a late response (Europe’s weak restrictions) show that “the weaker the freeze, the more people die in overburdened hospitals — and the longer it ultimately takes for the economy to restart.” (b) At this point, limited restrictions don’t work and a nation-wide freeze is the only strategy that has been effective in slowing the increase in new cases. (Some Asian countries didn’t use the full country-wide quarantine, but they also acted early and contained the virus quickly. Unfortunately, the US has most likely long passed that window of opportunity.)
“If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all Americans freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt. The virus would die out on every contaminated surface and, because almost everyone shows symptoms within two weeks, it would be evident who was infected. If we had enough tests for every American, even the completely asymptomatic cases could be found and isolated.
The crisis would be over.
Obviously, there is no magic wand, and no 300 million tests. But the goal of lockdowns and social distancing is to approximate such a total freeze.” (b)
Personal Prevention (for the next few weeks to a month, at least):
Quarantine ourselves – practice physical distancing. Don’t visit others. Do video meetings, create social events over video.
Wash hands with soap and water often and keep surfaces disinfected. The virus can live on surfaces for up to 9 days.(c)
To get groceries (or go where there are other people) maintain 6 feet between people and wash hands with soap and water afterwards.
Don’t hug or shake hands with neighbors and those outside of your house – do the elbow bump or wave from a distance
Stay home if we are sick or vulnerable to get sick (ask for help and send someone else to do the purchases), (except for seeking medical attention if necessary).
What if I show symptoms or someone I know is does? Most common symptoms of COVID-19: Fever, Dry cough, Difficulty breathing (c)
If you have these symptoms but they are not critical, the ideal thing is to get tested. The CDC is recommending that you stay at home (c) so as not to spread the virus and overwhelm hospitals. If you decide to recover at home, isolate yourself from others in your house to prevent spreading it to your family members. (How to isolate: https://hub.jhu.edu/2020/03/23/how-to-self-quarantine-self-isolate/) (Note that 70-80% of transmission in China occurred among families, so experts recommend isolation, as crappy as it sounds.) (b). HOWEVER, If you decide to seek medical care instead of staying at home, I personally think that’s a great idea for your own health, the health of your family, and also because getting tested can be helpful in tracking and controlling the virus.
Wash hands with soap and water often and keep surfaces disinfected. The virus can live on surfaces for up to 9 days. (c)
Notify all those that you’ve been in contact with in the last 14 days so they can be sure to quarantine themselves and be extra careful not to spread the virus to others just in case they were exposed.
CDC says: Definitely seek medical care if you have these symptoms: Trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, bluish lips or face. (c)
Stay in isolation for 14 days, checking your temperature daily. “Finding and testing all the contacts of every positive case is essential, experts said. Contacts generally must remain home for 14 days and report their temperatures twice a day.” (b)
What can I do while I’m sitting at home in quarantine? Individual Action – what we need to (and can) do:
“In my experience, success is dependent on how much the public is informed and participates,” Admiral Ziemer said. “This truly is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation.” (b)
Help each other out, have a little more patience and compassion since we’re all going through crazy times
Plan for a few months of economic disruption the best you can, and if you can, help those that are more vulnerable and those who can’t work from home and won’t be able to receive income during the quarantine.
Check for a “Virtual Tip Jar” in your area (google it for your area). Forward your payment to the handyman, keep paying your dog walker or cleaning person if you have one and are able.
If you’re into communicating with our representatives, here’s the experts’ thoughts on action at the national level:
Federal Intervention Necessary:
Coordinate an effort for the production of ventilators. “The roughly 175,000 ventilators in all American hospitals and the national stockpile are expected to be far fewer than are needed to handle a surge of patients desperate for breath.” (b)
Coordinate an effort for an increase in supply and delivery of oxygen. “The United States must also work to increase its supply of piped and tanked oxygen, Dr. Aylward said.” (b)
Coordinate a mass scale of training volunteers. “With training, volunteers were able to do some ground-level but crucial medical tasks, such as basic nursing, lab technician work or making sure that hospital rooms were correctly decontaminated. Americans often step forward to help neighbors affected by hurricanes and floods; many will no doubt do so in this outbreak, but they will need training in how not to fall ill and add to the problem.” (b)
“Federal intervention is necessary for some vital aspects of life during a pandemic. Only the federal government can enforce interstate commerce laws to ensure that food, water, electricity, gas, phone lines and other basic needs keep flowing across state lines to cities and suburbs.” (b)
*I found that finding reliable information on the COVID-19 situation is full time work, especially if one actually looks across the spectrum of sources (because unfortunately much of the information is politicized, some outdated, and some misleading.) Here’s the best readable source I found, in case you want to read a doctor’s perspective: https://tincture.io/dispatch-5-from-the-front-lines-eb672f2f2988
Text message received from a contact in Italy (Carlos, Wednesday, 25 March) (translated from Spanish): Here in Italy hospitals are overloaded and don’t have the PPE (masks, gloves, etc) for the hospital personnel, but every day they are mobilizing more to create space in hotels and other sites. The military has also helped build infrastructure for aid. Everything has been closed for 17 days and until April 3rd, though this timeline will probably be extended. Since yesterday, the number of deaths increased but the number of cases decreased. This week is the key week that will tell if the quarantine measures are working and if the decrease in the spread has started.
d. “As soon as possible, experts said, the United States must develop an alternative to the practice of isolating infected people at home, as it endangers families. In China, 75 to 80 percent of all transmission occurred in family clusters. Instead of a policy that advises the infected to remain at home, as the Centers for Disease and Prevention now does, experts said cities should establish facilities where the mildly and moderately ill can recuperate under the care and observation of nurses.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/health/coronavirus-restrictions-us.html
Maps visualizing case numbers:
https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html (I find it more helpful to view the tab at the bottom of the map “actual cases” to see the current situation. In my opinion, the most important information is in the bottom, right hand corner, watching and comparing the “Daily Increase” of each country.
Bariloche, Argentina. The Swiss Argentina. Argentina’s Boulder, Colorado. An amusement park for adult outdoors enthusiasts. Hippie haven. Patagonia.
There are many ways to describe this unique and beautiful little city of 150,000 people and its surrounding area. And each one gives you a little hint of what it’s like (though of course none of them can fully capture its essence).
Bariloche is a tourist hot spot, for both international tourists and national tourists, alike. (While here, I actually met more tourists from within Argentina (mostly from the capital, Buenos Aires) than international tourists.) It is a city on the shore of an extensive and beautiful lake, surrounded by hills, lakes, streams, and forested areas with trails, protected and accessible as municipal and national parks.
At the latitude of Colorado but in the southern hemisphere, they resemble each other in climate and somewhat in the landscapes too. In autumn (late April), the leaves turn colors, in the winter it snows and boasts a famous ski resort, and summer and spring provide great weather for hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, wind surfing, and surely many other outdoor sports that I just haven’t thought of in this moment.
One of the many things that was recommended to me was to hike up one of the mountain-like hills to “Refugio Frey”, a shelter at the top where one could camp overnight. Though I had just purchased a used tent, I was feeling like sleeping in a bed, so I decided to do the 6-8 hour round trip hike in one day.
While every day so far had been sunny, today it decided to rain. With a rain jacket and a poncho, I didn’t mind too much. There were still amazing views of the lakes and the city below (though I did imagine how much more incredible it might look with the sun shining directly on the lake below), and it was really refreshing to be out in nature.
In the last 40 minutes of the hike, it got a little cold and my fingers started getting numb. Then, in the last 10 minutes, the climb turned into a scramble over large rocks, and the wind picked up. As the path opened up, the wind started whipping so hard that it literally almost blew me over. The wind was cold, and I was wet. I caught site of the shelter and put my head down against the wind and ran to the entrance, which provided a wind break and made a world of difference.
Entering the shelter was like entering grandma’s warm kitchen at Christmas. The atmosphere filled with the warmth of a woodstove and chatter from other hikers sitting around tables, some speaking Spanish and others English. About 8 pairs of shoes were carefully laid out under the woodstove, so I took the cue and took off my wet shoes and left them there to dry.
I sat next to some Spanish speakers and started warming my hands as I took in the scene. A guy next to me asked if I was cold and I explained that only my hands were cold, but a woman on the other side of me told me to go grab the big heavy jacket hanging up and to put it on, explaining that it was hers and it would warm me up quickly. I felt like it was an order more than an offer, and anyway I wouldn’t have turned down her kindness even if I did feel bad for wrapping my wet self in her warm jacket.
She was there conversing with two other men, and eventually I got integrated into the conversation, and they even invited me to share some of their salami and cheese snack. In a previous life I would have been in a hurry to get back down the mountain. That is to say that the thought crossed my mind, with a twinge of anxiety accompanying it. But I reminded myself that in this journey, my goal is to slow down and meet new people and see new things.
Chatting with them, I learned that they had hiked up the night before and spent the night. The hike up had taken them much longer than anticipated, and they had to hike about an hour in the dark, arriving at 10pm! The woman, Dany, and her friend Faby were police officers from a rough neighborhood in Buenos Aires. For their vacations, they were visiting their friend Maty who used to live in the same rough neighborhood of Buenos Aires but was now living in a nearby province. They hadn’t really anticipated doing hikes on their vacation so they didn’t have appropriate shoes or gear and were kind of just winging it. They were on the last few days of their 10-day vacation and had just been going with the flow, and so far they were loving it.
Now that I am writing this about them, it shouldn’t have surprised me what happened next, but it did.
As I shared my story with them, they were surprised that I was traveling alone, that I had hiked up alone, and that I was going to go back down in the same day. I shared a little about my travels, where I was from, where I was going, and I jokingly said that I was always looking for travel companions. “Where are you going next?” they asked. I explained that I was thinking of either going to the mountain “El Tronodor” on the border with Chile or to El Bolsón, a smaller city to the south that had reputation for being cute and beautiful.
“Let’s go to El Bolsón!” one of the them threw out there. Maty pointed out that he had heard that it was “even better than Bariloche”. “Why not?” they half joked, noting that they hadn’t really planned anything and were just going with the flow and changing plans at every turn. The conversation continued to other things as we finished the mate and salami, and then a few minutes later Dany said, “OK, so are we going to camp here another night, or are we heading to El Bolsón?”
And that is how our friendship started.
We agreed that we would all hike down together, do some grocery shopping together, and then they would pick me up the next morning from where I was staying and we would head to El Bolsón together.
On the hike down we had a great time as I got to know them a little better. They were all really genuine people, not afraid to express gratitude for their friendship and this experience, to share personal experiences and also to be goofy and joke around and tease each other.
Maty was the jokester who always kept us laughing and singing. Dany had an incredible knowledge of the different plants because a naturalist had lived with her for a few years and she had learned all she could. She was a super curious question-asker and a talker.
Fabi was the “guide” who led us down the trail – he was really athletic and able to go just about anywhere, for example finding a way down to the river to fetch water. He was somewhat soft spoken, with a great sense of humor, and was not afraid to let loose into song. Which was possibly my favorite part about the hike down – the many times they all busted out into song, including a wonderful cheesy song about friendship (“Un Amigo es Una Luz“) that was appropriate for the moment.
The 2-hour ride to El Bolsón was beautiful. I used my travel apps to try to find a good place to camp, but luckily our driver, Maty, ignored me and followed signs for camping near a river. After driving down a gravel road for about 20 minutes, we came to a perfect campsite next to a crystal clear river, with a view of a snow-capped mountain in the distance.
As we spent the next 24 hours together, each passing moment I realized moreso than before how incredibly lucky I was to have found these awesome people and that they had let me into their friend circle to share this little adventure.
Jokingly, (but for real), everyone had their roles. Fabi was the cook (even though he’d never cooked on a campfire before, he did an awesome job!) Dany and I gathered firewood. Maty and I set up the tents. I washed the dishes. Dany made sure there was always mate or “te cocido” to drink.
Over the next 36 hours or so together, we went on hikes, explored nearby rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, looked at the stars, cooked and ate together, and spent a lot of time chatting about life and joking around the campfire or in the car.
Our time together came to an end just in time actually, because the government closed the national parks and our campsite for the quarantine right after we left.
As we were driving towards where they would drop me off, they broke out in song once again, this time dedicated to me (“No es mi despedida“), and they all sang along at the top of their voices – a wonderfully cheesy and awesome moment that I will carry with me forever!
In this game of musical chairs, the music stopped when I was traveling from Argentina to Chile. After a night of changing my mind literally 10 times about where I should be for the quarantine, the decision became final when I was halfway to Chile the next day. I had planned to try to make it to Chile to stay with friends, but half-way to the Argentine border city I got news that they were starting to close entry to the city. I still had a long way to go to get to my friends in Chile, so I opted for a closer home base – heading back to Bariloche where I had made a friend who lives outside of the city. There I would be in good company, with access to stores, not in the middle of a major city with lots of people, and with the bonus of being in a beautiful place.
It’s really interesting to be in Argentina during this time, especially because of the perspective of the people I’ve been around, which has lead to their lack of panic and their ability to be pretty calm in the face of everything that’s happening. (Note that these are just the people I’ve been around, I can’t speak for the general population of the country.) They have been through tough times and have come out of it, and that seems to give them a sense of hope or faith that, just like before, things will be crazy but they will be ok in the end.
Argentina is known for going through cycles of economic crisis, and most people have experienced at least one or more serious downturns in their lives (some affected much worse than others). For example, one friend I met was 21 with three kids during the last major economic problem, and for TWO years she suffered, literally getting by with basic survival skills, sometimes only eating corn on the cob so she could feed her kids. As she was telling me her story, she didn’t only talk about how horrible it was but also noted how much she learned and grew from the experience.
Another friend, Daniela, that I met through my travels went 20 minutes out of her way to take me where I was going, and as I thanked her profusely, she responded (in that typical Argentina way) “Por favor!” (Please! It’s not a problem!) I mentioned to her how I had noticed that many people were so flexible here, they didn’t have a problem with changing plans so easily. Her response was interesting – she said people were so used to the economic instability, that people learned to adapt and got used to being flexible, so changing plans was just a part of life. I would add an observation to her assessment that changing plans specifically to help out someone else seems to be a real part of the culture in the people that I’ve met.
Though I hadn’t talked to Daniela since she gave me that ride a month ago, I received a text message from her yesterday asking how I was, where I was, and offering me a place to stay if I needed. The fact that she had looked for my number just to check up on me meant so much to me that I might have even shed a tear.
I also received messages from at least three other Argentines that I had met along my journey, all just checking in on me – a friend I stayed with in San Juan, a couple I had met in a hostel, and a couple that I coincidentally crossed paths with 3 times along my journey.
In addition to learning about generosity, kindness, and hospitality from the people I’ve met in Argentina, I’m thankful to have their help practicing this art of not freaking out, of being flexible with changing plans, and making the most of (and doing the best with) whatever situation comes up. This mindset has helped me every step along my journey, and now it’s really being put to the test.
So far so good (though I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried about what the future will hold). I’m sad that I can’t be with family and close friends to help each other get through this crazy time together, but I’m extremely thankful to have contact with everyone and be able to talk whenever we want. And I am thankful to feel safe in a beautiful place with good company, and to even have the opportunity to visit beautiful lakes and hike through the beautiful hills in the surrounding areas. (And, I will have more time to post blogs, so stay tuned to hear about my last few weeks of adventure before the quarantine!)
Diary of the Quarantine:
Day 0 (3-16-2020) – After changing my mind 10 times, I end up in Bariloche, staying with a friend. To de-stress (and to process and appreciate my decision of how and where to survive the quarantine), I run to a nearby beach to swim and meditate in the (cold!) lake.
Day 1 (3-17-2020) – My host and his friend invite me to go kayaking on Lago Moreno, where we kayak, swim, and enjoy one of the last days of summer – a day of full sun – on the lake. (This quarantine thing doesn’t feel so bad in this moment.)
Day 2 (3-18-2020) – A day of meditation, writing, and checking in with friends and family.