Monday, August 15, 2011

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Argentina

I happen to be reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the moment.  I’m not very far along yet, but from what I’ve read so far, Chris and my experiences hitchhiking from Mendoza down through Patagonia were nothing like intergalactic travel.  For one thing, towels were not absolutely indispensable to our travel.  For another, without exception everyone who picked us up did it knowingly and were generally very friendly.

This was a first for both of us—hitchhiking, that is—not friendly people or towels.  Of course if you try hitchhiking in America today you are likely to either get arrested or dead.  Gone are the days of Kerouac and his transcontinental peripatetic shenanigans, more’s the pity.  But going along with what I said earlier about closing your eyes and pointing to a spot on the map/letting the wind take you where it will, I’ve long felt hitchhiking to belong to that exotic, carefree breed of travelers and ‘mad ones’ who, let’s admit it, we’ve all sort of envied at one point or another.  You know the kind—the ones who get by selling trinkets and crafts in South American city squares, trinkets they’ve taught themselves to make on the road.  Okay, secretly we also despise them just a little for being such ridiculous clichés and maybe for smelling a bit bad.  But there is an undeniable admiration for those who live their lives without the fear of running out of money or not having a plan.

So when we walked to the edge of Mendoza and started down the shoulder of the highway south, Chris and I didn’t really know what to expect.   We were pleasantly surprised to get our first ride within 10 minutes from a family in a red pickup.   It was exhilarating!  For those of you who maybe have hitchhiked since you were young pups nursing at your mothers’ breasts, it may not seem anything to write home about, but, well…shut up.
This was actually in another truck later on, but let's assume it was my first ride.  Note the excitement that would be visible on my face if it were turned to the camera.

There are some pointers and/or road etiquette you should know if you ever happen to be hitchhiking in Argentina (let’s face it, there’s a pretty high likelihood of that), such as: all the people of Neuquén City are evil and if you are trying to get a ride on its city limits, good luck to you.  Another gem can best be illustrated through a sample of conversation that might have taken place between Chris and me and sounded something like this:

Me:  Hey, Chris, this guy’s pointing to the left.  Whaddya think that means?

Chris: I don’t know, you’re the one who’s lived here for a year.  What’s wrong with you?

Me: Shut your face. 

Chris: Hey!  He’s slowing down, I th-- [I should probably have mentioned beforehand that I would be facing backward to make eye contact with passing motorists and Chris would be facing forward, we didn’t just enjoy stating the obvious to each other, nor is this a terrible attempt at expositional dialogue]--ink he’s gonna give us a ride!

Me: Badass! 

[we both start to run.  much heavy panting and laboring under 50 lbs. of mostly extraneous baggage.  car turns at crossroads and speeds up, fast receding into the distance.]

Me: Oh.  I guess it meant he was turning left.

Chris: Balls.

Of course, we later discovered that pointing left did not at all mean that the potential hitchhikee was turning left, regardless of whether he or she did happen to be turning left.  This became abundantly clear along stretches of highway where there were no turns in sight.  After the sixth or seventh time this happened we started losing it.  “Yah!” we would shout, jabbing our finger in a similar motion as the bemused people in the cars stared back.  “Take that, you pointer, you! ”  Sometimes their gestures varied, and it looked like the motorist was making a little tornado with their index finger as if to say, “Well boys, looks like we’re in for a twister.  I’m afraid you’re S.O.L.  Better luck next time,” or maybe “our bathroom drain was clogged for the longest time like you wouldn’t believe, but we finally managed to clean it out and now whoo boy!  You should see the water go down.  Looks sumpin’ like this.”  We much later discovered that both were pretty well-known gestures in Argentine hitchhiking culture to mean “I’m not going far, just stopping up the road here.  Sorry.”  We did feel a bit like jerks for our vigorous finger pointing and yells, but hopefully they just thought we were epileptic or had nervous tics.

Our second ride was Hugo, a trucker of few—and I do mean few—words.   

Another memorable ride was this wonderful, older couple who drove us as far as their home town, and invited us into their house for some cold lemonade before we hit the road again.  Then there was the man who played Frank Sinatra on his stereo for a solid hour and a half.  “Era el mejor cantante, no?  Ya no hay artistas así, por Dios!  Ojos azules se llamaba, sabías?”  He’d apparently lived in the States for a while.  “Bikers feel…”, he told me at one point, with great emotion and a dramatic pause.   I was waiting for the punchline, thinking he didn’t really seem like the joke-telling kind, when it dawned on me: Bakersfield. 

The couple who’d invited us into their house lived in a small town called Zapala, to the west of Neuquen City, a two or three-hour ride to San Martín de los Andes, our first destination in Patagonia.

“Whaddya think, should we try to get a ride to San Martín or just take the bus?”

“Hmm, maybe we try for a couple of hours and if no one picks us up we’ll get a bus.  Sound good?”


So we waited at the edge of town, the sun slowly setting and a bit of wind picking up. 

“Hey Chris, I really need to go.”

“Well why don’t you go over there behind that little sand dune.  There’s bushes.”

“Yeah, not that kind of go.  You don’t have toilet paper, do you?”


When nature calls though, who can resist?  Prickly bushes do not make for good toilet paper, in case you were wondering. 

And we ended up taking the bus.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mendoza: Vineyards and Sun-kissed Beauties

Chris had done his homework and arranged for us to stay with a couple of couchsurfers in the city of Mendoza.  Nacho and Franco were wonderful hosts—not only did they give us all the pointers we needed to explore the city, but hearing how much we missed good bacon and eggs, they bought us some, which we woke up to the following morning! 

Mendoza is pretty easy to navigate, and though not a particularly remarkable city in and of itself, is very relaxing and easy-going: it’s a joy to sit at cafés on the edges of its leafy plazas or wander its streets—the center is framed by four parks, one at each corner of a several block grid.  A truly bizarre experience was a snake farm that resembled less a farm or museum or zoo than it did one of those eerie tunnel rides at an amusement park… it did feature a twenty foot python in a glass cage!

More of interest than the city itself were all the vineyards surrounding it, and it was with anticipation that we found a bike rental that supplied you with a map of the various wineries.  We had fallen in with a fellow American the day before, Wiley J. by name, student by trade, recently come over from Chile where he had been for the semester or the year, I don’t remember.  He gladly joined us, as we cycled the dusty backroads of Mendoza in search of a buena desgustación!  Well unfortunately, and unbeknownst to us, the winetasting market had apparently grown cynical of all the freeloaders in recent years and had consequently started charging between 20 and 30 pesos per person for a tour.  This was somewhat above our means, so, our spirits crushed, we were forced to settle for a wine museum (that nonetheless included a free tasting), a cheaper winery (15 pesos), and a family-run chocolateria.  This last one proved an incredible find, though—molten chocolate infused with delightful hints of various fruits and liqueurs; the family also pickled their own olives in a slew of different spices and flavors, which we also got to sample.  For my money, though, Argentina’s best kept secret are its Mendocinas—you can keep your Rosario girls any day!

Chris, Wiley (r.) and me with our lovely tour guide at the family-run chocolateria

Friday, July 15, 2011

On Leaving a Place

Who knows if, when you finally leave a place for good and you feel like the place has well and truly started to grow on you and you’ve just found your place among a close circle of friends it’s because you really truly have; or because yearning immemorial for greener grass, and the eternally ineffable and poignant impermanence of human existence have called your number, and you need some reactionary heartstrings to be tugged at to avoid guilty feelings that you are a cold and impersonal drifter wandering through the world and life with no close relationships, a tree with no roots, the disease rather than the cure?

So I wondered as I said farewell to mi Buenos Aires querido after a year and change there.  I had started my online application to join the Peace Corps in June 2009, and reading that the whole process took anywhere from 3-9 months, I planned to give my notice in December and get a bit more South American traveling under my belt before I was done.  The idea was to travel around Argentina’s Western wine region of Mendoza and hitchhike down through the remote and storied wildernesses of Patagonia, before traveling up through the Bolivian Andes and the South of Peru to the ruins of Macchu Pichu.  From there I would fly up to Northern California to visit Marjana and AJ for a month or so before (as I thought), I would be sent somewhere with the Peace Corps.

All that remained was to find a traveling partner, as I’d learned from my European experience that, while traveling solo can have its rewards, being on the road by yourself can also be very lonely.  I used, a website that has proved invaluable for thousands of travelers all over the world; in fact, I met many of my Buenos Aires friends through couchsurfing, and played football once a week with that crowd.   Chris S., a recently arrived college graduate from the U.S., answered my post, and we met at a café to see if we’d be able to stand each other’s company for three weeks.  We figured we could, so with a little planning and a lot of excitement, we set off in a bus for Mendoza a week or so later.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Learning the language

"England and America are two countries separated by a common language" -- An overquoted witticism of George Bernard Shaw's that nonetheless rings true to me.

Of course, you could say the same of the Spanish spoken in Latin America as opposed to in Spain, the Portuguese of Brazil as opposed to that of Portugal or Angola, etc.  It is even more extreme in the Arab world, where very little is mutually intelligible between say, a Moroccan and a Saudi, if they are speaking in dialect.

Those of you who have learned another language know firsthand the difficulties, frustration, joy, hilarity, bewilderment and satisfaction that result!

Language was probably my primary motivation in going to South America, and definitely the main factor in choosing Argentina over Brazil, Spanish being my Moby Dick.  I had spent two years at university in Spain, but besides my Spanish being rustier than I liked, there was always the knowledge niggling at me that I hadn't really put in the effort to learn the language as well as I could have.  That I went to an American university there was not really a factor--I had chosen that beforehand.  But fate, circumstance and, most significantly complacency and comfort, saw me surround myself with English-speaking friends.

As much as I love Madrid, I never really felt a connection to Spaniards my age; those at St. Louis University kept to themselves and were probably not the best representatives, to be fair.  So despite leaving Spain fairly fluent and able to more or less communicate what I wanted to, I always felt I'd sold myself a bit short in that language experience, and I would never feel really good about it until I'd returned to the fray and harpooned the beast.

My linguistic foray into Argentine Spanish thus started with some trepidation, but rapidly turned into one of the most fun language-learning experiences I've had.  Rioplatense is the name given to the version of Spanish spoken by those living near the banks of the Rio de la Plata in Argentina and Uruguay, and what an expressive and exuberant little bugger it is!  Since there are so many people of Italian heritage, the cadence is much more noticeable than in other Spanish dialects.  And if you don't know how to use your hands, 'olvidalo, che!' ('forget it, maaan!')  Besides the sing-song tone and the wild gesticulations are the expressive sayings and vocabulary of lunfardo, as the slang of the capital is known.  I was fortunate enough to hear of Che boludo! which is an absolute must read if you are going to be in Buenos Aires for any significant length of time.  The phrase "Che boludo" roughly means "Hey, dude" and is ubiquitous.  Of course, it suffers from overuse by foreigners trying to fit in, but you will hear it aplenty if you spend time with Argentines.  Following are some of my favourite phrases, words, and expressions gleaned from the pages of Che boludo! and from many many conversations throughout the year.  The book also covers (if somewhat briefly), the differences between the standard Spanish 'Tu' and the very Rioplatense 'Vos'.

Che - Hey, man, dude, bro(seph), buddy, etc.

Boludo - Idiot [when used with friends, a term meaning dude, man, bro, etc.]

Viste? - You know? [literally Did you see? Not a word exclusive to Argentina, but this particular use is]

Tipo - 1. Guy [literally type]  2.  About/Like [E.g.  'Vamos al shopping tipo diez' - We're going to the mall at about/like 10]

Mina - Chick, girl

Quilombo - Mess [The normal Spanish word for mess is 'lío', so if you use 'quilombo' Argentines will love you for it.]

Chabón - Guy [used in reference, but not normally to get someone's attention]

Boncha - Chabon.  This is an example of a phenomenon in lunfardo where you reverse the syllables of a word to get the same meaning.  So feca = café (coffee) and sope = peso (their currency)

Bondi - Bus

Te parece? - How about it/You think?  [Once again, not exclusive to Argentina, but this use is. *This is not a sarcastic You think? like in English]

Re - Really

Fiaca - Laziness  [As in: 'Me da fiaca (hacer algo)' - I can't be bothered (to do something) OR 'Estoy haciendo fiaca nomás' - I'm just hanging out, not doing anything]

Nomás - Just (roughly translated)  Used for emphasis ['Pasá' - Come in.  'Pasá nomás' - Come on in.]

Pedo - Fart [literally, but used as in conjunction with different prepositions to mean a variety of things]:
            En pedo - Drunk
            Ni en pedo! - Not even drunk! [I.e. No way (am I doing that)!]
            Al pedo - Useless, Doing nothing ['Estoy al pedo' - I'm not doing anything]
            A los pedos - Very fast ['Ibamos a los pedos!' - We were booking it!]
            De pedo - By chance

Que garrón/embole/bajón - Bummer!/That sucks!

, eh? - Used to add meaning e.g. 'Gracias, eh?' - I appreciate it (as opposed to a simple thanks)

Me mataste - You've got me [when you don't know the answer to something.  Literally You killed me.]

No hinches, che! - Don't be a pain!  [Literally Don't bust my...well, you know.]

These words are powerful, my friends.  Use them wisely.  Suerte!