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