When One Door Closes….

Sadly, this will probably be my last blog entry for a little while, and my last about South America for a much longer while. As of yesterday, I had been back in the United States for exactly 2 weeks, which meant 14 full days without a single Spanish conversation, Buenos Aires sunrise, or jam-packed colectivo ride. It’s amazing how quickly 4 months of your life can fade into the past, individual moments blending together into a cohesive “WOW” experience. The more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to pick out single memories. Only two short weeks into the future, thinking back to my time in Argentina is a lot like looking at a coiled rainbow slinky: a beautiful whole made up of a seemingly endless string of colorful fun.

I know as time continues to pass, it will become more and more difficult to mentally uncoil my Argentine slinky and remember each and every amazing adventure. That is part of the reason I am so glad to have this blog, my journal, and my pictures to return to. There are, however, a few key lessons that I plan to carry with me for the rest of my life, a little remembrance of South America in daily life. Call them the “5 Things I Learned in South America:”
1) Yes I Can
….Plan a trip to Chile, survive a 18 hour bus ride, find my way through a world-class city, or buy fruit in Spanish. I proved to myself that I can do all of this, and so much more, all it takes is a little effort and a lot of faith. I now know I have the tools to pick something and say “yes, I will do that.”
2) Yo Hablo Español
….Yes, I do speak Spanish now. You may not see me swapping slang in the street, but I’d like to think I can say just about whatever I need to. At the very least I can get directions to the nearest bar, order a beer, and ask the person next to me how his day was. What more do you really need?
3) We’re Not So Different
….Bring in language, culture, income, or food preferences, but when it comes down to it, everybody wants pretty much the same thing: peace, love, and a good time, and most people are willing to help each other along the way to achieving these goals. I saw it in myself, my fellow students, and my South American hosts. Add the fact that we’re all human, and you realize you’re never really that much of a “foreigner.”
4) I Need Nature
….Don’t get me wrong, I loved the city, but for me mountains are the true “skyscrapers,” and being surrounded by trees will always beat being surrounded by people. And if you can combine the two, well then hey, even better.
5) The World is a Classroom
….And the best part is, it gives you very little homework. Stepping away from the typical college life for a while made me realize how beneficial it can be to have your own time to explore. I know classrooms and teachers are good for direction, but homework can be far overdone. Somehow, spending hours in front of a computer screen just doesn’t compare to being sprayed by the mists of Iguazú Falls, or seeking out multi-national dinner conversation in hostels across Argentina.

These are only a few of the lessons that have made themselves obvious since returning from Buenos Aires, and it is safe to say they won’t be the only ones. For all I know, it could take years to decide exactly how my time abroad affected the rest of my life. I am, however, sure of one thing: it was a “life-changing” experience, in all of its stereotypical and cliche glory. The places I saw, people that I met, and things that I accomplished have left a permanent mark on the Morgan Brown Biography. Hell, they probably deserve their own chapter. And while it is sad to mark the end of that section, I’m anxious to see where the next one begins, and how I carry my newfound skills and lessons with me.

I would like to acknowledge all of the individuals who made my trip what it was, from Carmen and Jimena, our API directors, to the Mendoza hiking guides that I still tell stories about. I also need to extend my appreciation to all of those faithful readers who accompanied me (in spirit) on some of my most spectacular adventures in such a spectacular country. Without you, there really would have been no reason to write, and I hope you got as much enjoyment out of reading about my travels as I did recounting them.
The good news is that I’ll stop gumming up your email with notifications about “A New Blog Entry!.” Without the Southern Hemisphere to inspire me, I’m going to have to find some new material to pollute your inbox with. It may take a little while to start it up again, but have no fear, at some point down the road I’ll make a resurgence in my blogging career. As to what I will actually write about: your guess is as good as mine.

Hasta la proxima vez, mis amigos

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It’s the End of the World

“El fin del Mundo”
The simple phrase was stenciled proudly into countless signs, restaurants, souvenir shops, and t-shirts throughout the city of Ushuaia, which enjoys the honor of being generally regarded as the southernmost city in the world. Situated in the bottom of the Patagonia region of Argentina, Ushuaia was originally founded as a prison settlement, the destination for hundreds of criminals for whom jail quite literally meant the end of the world. Today, the prison is closed, but the city still sees its fair share of visitors: tourists who come wearing winter jackets instead of striped uniforms, bearing cameras instead of chains. You see, apart from being the southernmost city in the world, and an ex-prison colony, Ushuaia is also the capital of Tierra del Fuego, one of the most uniquely beautiful regions in Argentina, and arguably the world.
It was this combination of factors that led our study abroad program, API, to select Ushuaia as the destination for our final excursion of the semester, an all-expenses paid, grand finale meant to let us celebrate one of our last weekends in Argentina.  I know I was not alone in my irrational excitement for the trip. Since we first arrived in July, the weekend in Ushuaia has been one of the most popular conversation topics in our group. In my case, it was a solid 20% of the reason I chose API as my study abroad program. The Patagonia region is almost as famous as Argentina itself, the subject of countless documentaries, photos, movies, and even a multi-million dollar company name. I knew that if I came to Argentina, I couldn’t leave without experiencing it for myself, and if someone else wants to foot the bill…well then all the better.
Far from simply paying the way for all of us lowly college kids, the directors at API had already purchased plane tickets, made housing reservations, and designed a full itinerary. After spending far too many hours of my life in front of a computer screen researching bus routes and the cheapest lice-free hostels, being able to hop aboard a fully planned trip felt like cheating. All that was left to do was pack up our hats and mittens and go along for the ride.

In this case, “going along for the ride” meant rising around 3:30 on Friday morning to get to the domestic airport in Buenos Aires. Our program director and fearless leader for the weekend, Jimena, joined us 13 API students in finding our bleary-eyed way onto a chartered bus…well 12 of us at least; Katie added a little bit of early-morning excitement by not getting out of bed until the bus pulled up to the front door of her apartment. After a little scrambling and a quick dash across Santa Fe, the straggler joined the rest of us to arrive safely at the terminal, stroll straight through security, across the runway, and onto the plane. The sky was just beginning to lighten as the plane taxied down the runway and lifted gently into the air. Destination: South.
According to my carefully executed Google search, Ushaia lies exactly 1,474 miles, as the crow flies, from Buenos Aires. This hefty distanced translated into a roughly 3.5 hour flight, the majority of which I spent talking to my neighbor, a man named Eduardo who works as an electrical engineer in the Argentine Coast Guard. Approaching Ushuaia afforded us the first glimpse of what the Patagonia region could offer to those adventurous enough to find their way down. Enormous expanses of mountains created a real-life topographical map. As we circled closer individual summits because visible, challenging each other for dominion over the sky. I felt like I had landed myself in one of the ski movies that take up my fall nights each year; snow-covered peaks filed back in every direction, they’re steep white faces, cliffs, and chutes begging for the touch of a snowboard. I could almost hear the classic dialogue in the back of my mind: “3….2….1….Dropping.”
Unfortunately, for this trip it was only our plane that was doing the dropping, touching down onto a runway running parallel to a sparkling bay and rows of those tantalizing mountains. Again, we made quick work of airport security and emerged into the crisp, cool, Ushuai-an air to meet the bus that brought us to our sleeping quarters for the weekend at Aires Beagle: a small collection of cabin-style condos situated just outside the city center. As the only 3 guys on the trip, Matt, Patrick, and I had the luck to be assigned our own 3-person condo. It was a simple, yet comfortable kitchen/sleeping area which we quickly christened “The Johnson Pad.” We had just enough time drop our stuff on our respective beds and raid the fridge of its bread, milk, and OJ (meant to be for the next day’s breakfast) before our group reconvened to explore our new surroundings.
You really couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. The sun shone bright and strong, but the air was tinged with a refreshing Arctic chill that made every step feel as if you were walking through all-natural air conditioning. The result was a temperature that would be appropriate for just about anything: pickup soccer, hiking, lounging, or, in this case, strolling through the streets of Ushuaia in jeans and a t-shirt. I spent the first 5 minutes of our walk simply spinning myself in circles to take in the world around me. The city of Ushaia lies sandwiched between two of the best things in life: water and mountains. Looking South, one can see the sparkling waters of the Bay of Beagle, the horizon crowned by spiky, white peaks. Turn a full 180, and you will be snow-covered summits of another mountain range, which sprout from the back of the town and stretch both left and right, creating a “U” around the settlement that should stand for Unbelievable. Throughout our stay in Ushuaia, these peaks took on all manner of appearances, depending upon the time of day, weather, and vantage points. One second they would stand stark against the clear blue sky, the next be wrapped in a web of soft cloud. Regardless of the look, the power of living underneath such beauty was palpable throughout our stay.
After walking for about 25 minutes I realized that we were finally at our destination….a shopping mall? I’m all for supporting the economy, but somehow appreciating the amazing scenery of Patagonia through a 3rd-story food court window just didn’t seem right. I turned to Jasmine, who has become my designated “nature buddy” for our various trips.
“Jasmine, do you want to get out of here?”
“Yes. Please.”

And so we pulled a quick U-turn, headed back down the humming escalators, and back into the tantalizingly fresh air. Instead of browsing through shiny new plastic knick-knacks, we passed the next 3 hours walking all along the coastline of Ushaia, extending the journey out onto a peninsula that gave home to a few quaint houses and a collection of horses. We capped off the with Jasmine leading me through a sunrise salutation in the gazebo of a small park. By the time we arrived back in the town center to meet our group for lunch at 2, our cheeks were flushed from the crisp breeze, and my mind was thrumming from so quality nature time.
More than just red cheeks and tousled hair, the walk had also left me with a healthy appetite. Looking for a meal worthy of three growing men, Matt, Patrick, and I decided to split an asado. Minutes later the waiter reappeared bearing a platter piled high with meat, fresh of the grill, that was literally sizzling. Chorizo sausage, chicken, pork, beef, blood sausage, and the famous Patagonian cut of lamb called cordero were all piled in a sinfully delicious spread. Every cut tasted every bit as good as it looked (and sounded), but it was the cordero that really stole the show. In the classic style of asado, the lamb had only been seasoned with salt and fire, letting the rich flavor of the meat speak for itself. It was lean, gamey, tender, and utterly satisfying, especially when washed down with a cool glass of beer.

Our asado feast left all three of us guys reclined in our seats, savoring the feeling of a stomach full of genuinely good food. I don’t think I was the only one feeling the 3:30 wakeup call from earlier that day; our whole group looked like they wouldn’t have taken issue with a designated nap time. That, however, was out of the option. Before coming down, Jimena had heard about a hiking trail that ran next to the local ski resort, and I could hear the mountains calling my name. Channeling the hefty lunches into a store of energy, our group rallied themselves to take a group of taxis up towards the trailhead, following a winding road that dropped us at the base of a ski lift. A rocky path stretched out before us, leading up towards a collection of towering, snow-covered peaks.
And thus at 4:00, the 13 API students, plus Jimena, took to the trail, bravely battling through the immobility of jeans, traction of all manner of footwear, and extra weight provided by the recent lunch. The sun was still shining brightly, the views were spectacular, and spirits were high. As we climbed a bit hire, snow began to appear across the trail, slushy corn that is perfect for forming snowballs, or slipping out from underneath the foot of an unsuspecting hiker. Still, our group kept pushing ahead. It wasn’t until we reached the bowl at the base of the surrounding peaks that it finally looked like people were ready to throw in the towel. I caught myself looking longingly at the summits ahead, but realized that between our group, gear, and late start, today probably wasn’t the best day to tackle the trek. I was preparing to enjoy the sweet air and a leisurely walk back… until Jasmine called my name from the front.
“Morgan, are you not gonna keep going up?”
Well, there was no way I was turning down a challenge like that.
“No no, I’m coming.”

I turned around and followed Jasmine up into the snowfields rising up in front of us, reveling in the heavy sound of my own breath and the crunch of snow beneath my feet. The rest of the group remained below on the sun-baked rocks, disappearing from view as we rounded a corner. The snow got deeper, or jeans got wetter, and the face got steeper, but still we kept chugging up the hill. I wasn’t sure if we would actually make it to the summit, but only knew that every step brought me a bit closer. The steps continued until we hit another headwall, this one steeper than anything previously seen. Fighting our way up through created a pattern reminiscent of a Stairmaster: kick into snow, weight on foot, step up….kick into snow, weight on foot, step up… We climbed, and still the summit remained a distant dream. It wasn’t until about 6:45, standing alone on the intimidatingly-steep slope, that Jasmine and I finally decided it was better to be safe an warm in the light of a condo than cold and stranded on a mountain in the dark. That, and my lower third felt like it had been dunked in a tank of ice-water.
Despite the premature turn-around, our hike was the furthest thing from a failure. Looking back the way we had come provided a view unlike anything I had seen yet. A pass between the mountains showed the city of Ushuaia spread out like a map, sloping downward until it hit the shores of the Bay of Beagle. Across those midnight-blue waters one could just make out a string of white peaks, mirroring the ones surrounding us. Jasmine and I celebrated the view, our ascent, and the raw feeling of being outdoors with yells and yodels that echoed across the bowl. When it came time to start heading back down, we discovered that running, jumping, and sliding our way was the most effective, and the most fun. We must have painted quite a picture: two pictures bounding through the dusk down darkened slopes, letting out bursts of song as the inspiration struck us. It was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had while in Argentina.

An added bonus of running downhill is that it is much, much quicker than climbing up. Thanks to our own energy, and the force of gravity, Jasmine and I were back at the base of the trail by 7:30, wet, tired, and ready for a taxi ride back to civilization. We arrived at the Aires Beagle with plenty of time to shower, change, and join the rest of the group for a big family-style dinner. Happy conversation carried us up through the evening, of which my favorite topic was deciding upon spirit Pokemon for every person in the room. It wasn’t until about 12:30, after deciding that Patrick was officially a Meowth, that our 21-hour day finally caught up with us. The guys retreated to our room, where my bed welcomed me with a nearly instant trip into a warm, dreamless sleep.
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And so ended the 1st of 3 days in Ushaia. An enormous thank you to all over you who stuck with me for this very detailed account; I hope that you got the same enjoyment reading it as I did in writing it. I realize that it is only the first third of the trip, but sadly I can’t promise when the next installment of this grand journey will appear. I am currently in my last week in Buenos Aires before I head off to the Salta province with two friends for one final Argentine journey. With the coming craziness, it may be some time before I find a chance to write again. Fortunately, I’m sure you have much more pressing things to attend to than reading the whimsical blogs of a lowly college student. Until the next entry- Ciao!

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La Vida Porteña

I’ve been in Buenos Aires for just over 3 months now; 120 days filled with the spirit of “Carpe Diem,” full of tours, trips, museums, buses, food, displays, exhibits, walking, running, biking, and Spanish-speaking. I’ve done my best to make every day count, to have an new experience, to make a memory, and looking back, I would say I’ve done a pretty darn good job. Despite all of my efforts, however, I was still missing one thing: a simple day of relaxing in the city.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve had more time to relax in the last 14 weeks than any self-respecting university student has a right to, but it’s relaxing a different kind. It’s the type that comes with long hours spent on a bus speeding towards a new place, or finally landing in bed after a full day of adventures. They were breaks between the craziness, like coming through a hurricane to find yourself briefly in the calm of the eye, before being swept off again. Let’s be clear; I loved every second of it. It has enabled me to see and do more than I ever thought possible, but the brief bouts of respite are a far cry from those occasional days spent lounging at home because you have nowhere else you need to be, and nothing to do but recharge the batteries. This was they type of day I had been lacking in my stay here in the Southern Hemisphere, until, that is, this weekend. One of my last in the great city of Buenos Aires, and with no grand plans, I finally got a taste of what it might feel like to live as a true porteño.

My Saturday started in genuine Argentine fashion, rising bright and early… at noon, because everyone knows that nothing of consequence happens in the city until maybe 2:00pm.
If we wanted to get technical, however, I suppose we could say that my Saturday had actually started at midnight, right about the time I was finishing an amazing 5-course dinner with my friends Katie, Sarah, and Katie’s parents (that, unfortunately, is a story for another blog). In a country where happy hour ends at midnight, it is absolutely acceptable to wait until the wee hours of the morning to start your night. In fact, it’s common knowledge that most clubs don’t really get going until 3 or 4 in the morning. With that in mind, you could argue that Katie, Sarah, and I were getting an “early” start when we met the rest of group a bar in the Palermo neighborhood around 1. The bar called Chupitos, named after the term for a “shot” in Spanish, and boasted an impressive array of over 40 different alcoholic creations, for all manner of tastes. You could elect a suave, creamy “one star” shot, or have liquor poured into your open mouth before the bartender took your head between his hands and shook vigorously to mix it. After some time bouncing to American pop and talking with some guys from Venezuela, I chose the “Harry Potter,” a magically green potion that the bartender lights on fire before presenting you with a straw to suck it down.
From Chupitos we went to the apartment of one of our friends Lisa, to enjoy some more good music and great company. Now well into the night (or morning), the group ventured back out again in search of a boliche (or club). I’ll be the first to admit that a sea of people and overly-amped music isn’t really my thing, and was on the fence about whether I would join. Upon seeing the $80 peso cover, I decided, along with Matt, that 4:30 was as good a time as any to head back home. We caught a bus back to Recoleta, where a warm bed welcomed me without asking for any sort of entrance fee.

A dreamless sleep brings us back to my Saturday “morning.” Normally, I do everything possible to be out of the house and in the midst of some exciting undertaking by noon, instead of in the midst of a shower, but as I said, today was a porteño day. I did break from tradition a little bit, substituting the Argentine breakfast of toast and dulce de leche for an egg sandwich complete with avacado and Siracha hot sauce. That and a cup of coffee gave me plenty of energy to get out of the apartment and towards the Fería Recoleta, which takes place every weekend in a plaza outside the famous Recoleta Cemetery. Artists and vendors come from all corners of the city to market clothing, jewelry, paintings, woodwork, weaving, and a enormous array of other artesenal products. I drifted through the maze of tends, enjoying the warm sunlight and happy sounds of people spending money.
After my first lap through, I met up with Matt, Marrisca, and Jasmine to meet Lisa in Los Bosques de Palermo, an enormous park that runs for 2 or 3 miles along Avenida Libertador, and is easily one of the most beautiful spots in the city. We paused just long enough to check out another fería, this one celebrating the 281 of my home barrio, Recoleta. It had everything I’ve come to expect from an Argentine fair: impressive artist wares, mouth-watering food, folklore music, and people of all ages dancing with smiles on their faces.

The beautiful weather persisted, and presented us with the perfect setting to lounge on the grass amidst scattered groups of other adolescents. I took the opportunity to break out my recently purchased maté, a hollow gourd that is cured and filled with a tea-like herb called yerba. This custom is about as Argentine as it gets, and it’s quite common to see people walking through the streets with gourd in hand and a thermos slung over their shoulder. About the only place I can think of where I haven’t seen someone drinking maté is a bathroom.
Copying our fellow park-goers, Matt, Marrisca, Lisa, Jasmine, and I passed around the maté and munched on tea-time galletitas. Soon after we added an American twist to the afternoon, trading passing the gourd for passing the frisbee. Lisa is on the Ultimate team at the University of Arizona, and she had the foresight to bring down a few discs, which are impossible to find in this soccer-obsessed country. We floated passes back and forth until the sun began to dip behind the trees, and Matt, Marrisca, and I caught the bus home.

I arrived back at the apartment with just enough time to use an evening jog as a way to build up an appetite for the night’s dinner destination. Last night’s amazing meal with Katie’s parents had satisfied my fine-dining requirement, and to balance it out we had agreed upon a infamous spot, simply called Burger Joint. It is the delicious antithesis to every fancy, touristy restaurant in existence. A small neon burger sign is all that marks the hole-in-the-wall spot. The interior looks like something like a post-apocalyptic McDonald’s; mismatched wooden furniture is complemented by decades of drawings and scrawled messages along the walls. A sign next to the door proudly reads “No Kardashians Allowed.” There are no menus. Instead, a chalkboard and cardboard signs hung in the windows show the three options: Mexican Burger, Bleu Burger, or Jamaican Burger. To drink: craft beer on tap, either Rubia, Scotch, or Pale Ale. Once you’ve decided upon your beer/burger combination, you can go up to the register to place your order with the young guy wearing an bright green Element t-shirt and backwards hat.
After brief thought, I settle on the Jamaican burger, complemented by a slightly hopped Pale Ale. Burger, fries, and a beer cost $65 pesos, just over $8 dollars and one of the cheapest dinners you’ll find. After getting our food, Matt, Sarah, Katie, Marrisca, Elaine, and I settle at an outdoor table to see if Argentine can produce a burger worthy of all the hype. Keeping with the theme of the setting, the Joint doesn’t preoccupy itself with presentation; my Jamaican burger and fries sit in a tin tray, beer in a plastic cup. The first bite of burger shows me why: the food here speaks for itself. Thick, juicy, beef mixes with pineapple, bacon, cheddar cheese, tomato, and honey mustard to create an explosion of flavor and texture that literally makes me moan with happiness. Because I only eat local meat in the States, it is not very often that I have a true hamburger, and I mean it when I say this is the best I’ve tasted in at least a year. Almost before I realize it, three more bites are gone. I force myself to pause, take a breath, and wet my throat with perfectly cold beer. I bide time munching on the fries, which are every bit as good as the burger, in their own respect: crispy, warm, salty, and paired with a unique Curry Ketchup. The first 30 seconds of this meal were enough to show my why it’s a local favorite, but I still take my time enjoying the rest of it to make sure. By the time I wash down the last bites I’m quite sure of it: I’ve never seen a burger and fries done better.

Yet again, it’s almost midnight by the time our group finishes our plastic cups of beer and looks up from the conversation. Full stomachs and the late hour might suggest bed in other places, but remember, this is Argentina. Keeping with the porteño spirit, we brush the crumbs off our laps and head towards the apartment of our friend Matteo, a young Italian guy who is part of Matt and I’s Spanish class. While we were eating burgers, he gathered a collection of international friends and housemates for an asado on his terrace. If you remember my previous post, an asado is another classic Argentine tradition that means far more than simply “barbeque.” With the grilled meat (which we pass on tonight) comes new friends, happy conversation, music, and copious amounts of Fernet con cola. Matteo’s asado provides all this and more, and I spend the next several hours exchanging ever-improving Spanish with other students from countries such as France, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and the US. Every person I meet is nicer than the last, and it’s not until my eyes close themselves that I finally call it a night. Jasmine, Sarah, and I bid fond farewells, and yet again I find myself on an early-morning bus back to Recoleta and my warm bed.

And so ended one of the most relaxing days I’ve had here in Buenos Aires, the first in which I didn’t stress about seeing that new musuem, or taking photos of those famous buildings, or planning the next great trip. It was a taste of what it could be like to actually live in the city, instead of being a passing tourist. It is an experience that, in its own way, is as valuable as any of the amazing trips I’ve gotten to do thus far, one that you can’t pay a travel agent to book for you.

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A Trip to Paradise

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My trip to Iguazú falls started in the exact same way as all my other weekend excursions here in Argentina: a comfortable seat in the upper level of a coach bus, fully loaded backpack at my feet, and butterflies in my stomach. If someone were to look closely, however, they would notice a few differences that gave a clue as to the nature of this trip. First, I had splurged this time and upgraded to a cama seat in place of the usual semi-cama. The ride to the Missiones section of Argentina, a little finger of land that juts into the heart of Brazil, takes about 16 hours, and I figured they  might as well be a comfortable 16 hours. Second, instead of being accompanied by a lone amigo, I was surrounded by 5 other wonderful people from my program. Becky and Jess had been previous companions (to Tapalque and Mendoza, respectively), but it was my first trip with Marrisca, Matt, and Katie. The 6 of us had planned, booked, and built up the trip together, and now we were ready to take Iguazú by storm. Finally, my backpack was slightly lighter than on previous trips; shorts, t-shirts, and a swimsuit had taken the place of jeans and jackets. Puerto Iguazú sits in the far north of Argentina, and rumor had it that it could get pretty warm up there.
If he let his gaze linger for a little longer, the casual observer also might notice that our group possessed a quiet comfortability of those that have traveled before. Sure, it’s only been about two months, but all of us had been on at least one extended weekend trip, and navigated the craziness of Buenos Aires besides. There was a little less “oohing” and “ahhing” at the reclining seats, a more systematic approach to stowing our gear, and most of has made the veteran decision to bring a freshly toasted Subway sandwich for dinner. I’m not proud that I supported the American chain, but I can tell you that in a culture where “to go” food is very limited, fresh veggies and honey mustard between freshly baked bread tasted pretty darn good.
The bus pulled out of Retiro station at 8:40pm, and the group, divided into three rows of two, filled our corner of the bus with the happy buzz of conversation. My neighbor for the voyage was Katie Mercer, a fellow Vermont-based student (she goes to UVM), who shares my passion for preparing and enjoying good food. We passed the night swapping stories and life philosophies, joined at times by Matt and Marrisca, who were seated behind us. Before I knew it, my watch read 1:00, and I found myself drifting to sleep, lulled by Matt’s voice painting a picture of his future “Southern belle” wife.
Waking up from a good nights sleep on a moving bus is not anywhere near as odd as you might think. There is something magical about being “in transit,” a feeling of possibility that comes from moving towards a new place, towards new adventures. Now almost 12 hours into the trip, the landscape was beginning to give a clue as to where we were going. The expansive grasslands of the Pampas faded into slight hills, speckled with various types of trees. As we continued north, the vegetation flushed out; dense, deep green walls lined the road, in stark contrast with the red clay soil and cotton-candy blue sky. It felt like…well, it felt like the jungle.

Our bus pulled into the terminal in Puerto Iguazú at 12:30pm Friday afternoon, capping off a 16 hour voyage filled with good talks, deep thoughts, sweet dreams, and beautiful scenes. We emerged into the bright sunlight, blinking away leftover drowsiness and taking stock of our new surroundings. Instead of the bustling, tourist-filled town that I had imagined, Puerto Iguazú looked like a place where you could pass 10 or 20 years without really noticing a difference. Simple, brightly colored houses lined roads populated with old mopeds and motorbikes. Signs showing various states of aging advertised parillas, pizza restaurants, taxi services, and small supermarkets. Maybe it was just the heavy, warm rays of the sun, but I felt as if an invisible pressure dictated that here, everything moved at half speed.
Keeping with that easygoing pace, our group coasted two blocks down the hill from the bus terminal and through the front doors of the Timbo Posada Hostel, a bright yellow building tucked into the side of one of the “main” streets of the city. There were 6 of us in a room of 8, and with only one other bed occupied, it felt like we were all part of a classic high school slumber party. A quick walk through the rest of the hostel led us to its crowning jem- a secluded patio, complete with hammock, pool, and towering greenery. In the rear was an open-air dining room and kitchen that looked like something out of Bahamas Housekeeping magazine: handmade wooden tables, chairs, cupboards, and a small bar complemented a full kitchen with a large window that offered a few of the sunbaked patio. I probably could have passed the weekend right there without feeling the least bit bothered, but we had our world traveler duties to attend to.
After giving the appropriate amount of “oohs,” “ahhs,” and “can you believe it?’s,” our group set off down the street towards Las Tres Fronteras. Our program director, Carmen, had told us about the picturesque spot where two rivers met at a right angle, dividing the countries of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay (hence the name “three borders”). The half-speed pressure of the innocent little town was still a strong presence, so we enjoyed meandering through the quiet streets, guided by the falling sun. The timing couldn’t have been better. We arrived at the lookout for tres fronteras just in time for one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy, rivaling even those seen of Mt. Washington from across Highland Lake. Matt, Marrisca, Katie, Jess, Becky, and I watched while leaning against the fence on the Argentine side of the divide. To the left was the red, white, and blue marker of Paraguayan border, and directly in front of us, 100 yards across the river, was the yellow and green of Brazil. Meanwhile, on the border of the horizon, the sky went through it’s own spectrum of colors. Yellow, orange, red, purple, navy, and midnight blue bled into one another until the stars stood out against an inky black sky. It was spectacular, a work of art you can’t find in any museum.

On the border with the whole crew

On the border with the whole crew

With our sense of sight happily satisfied, the next thing we had to attend to was our taste buds. Earlier in the day we had planned out and bought ingredients for a tropical dinner of our own creation, waiting for us back at the hostel. I hopped behind the counter in our open air kitchen to put together a chicken/vegetable stir fry over brown rice. Meanwhile, Katie took over the responsibility of creating a fresh mango salsa to garnish. Looking at the finished product, you would have thought we had stolen some of the colors from the sunset to put on our plates, and I’ll be the first to say it tasted as good as it looked: Crisp, crunchy, bright, sweet, and utterly delicious. Top it off with an ice cream sundae from a local heladería, some late night conversation, and the result is a sound nights sleep with all of my senses completely satisfied.

...Followed by dinner

…Followed by dinner

The next day, Saturday, was our “business” day in Iguazú. We had come to see the falls, and we were going to do it right. That meant a 7:30 wakeup call to 90’s classic music, followed by a hearty breakfast of coffee, fresh baked break, homemade cake, and fresh-squeezed OJ. One 20-minute taxi ride later, and we were standing at the entrance to Iguazú National Park by 10:00 (like I said, everything moves at half speed here).
Unfortunately, the morning had greeted us with gray skies and intermittent drizzle, but we had come prepared with rain jackets, ponchos, swimsuits, bright smiles, and the delighted energy that comes from traveling with new friends. We wound through jungle vegetation with high spirits and boarded a miniature train towards the park’s main attraction: La Garganta del Diablo. The name, which means “Devil’s Throat,” is given to the largest, most powerful section of the falls, and it is the spot in the park which gets you closest to the action.
We got off the train and joined the steady stream of people shuffling across an enormous metal boardwalk. Built upon thick concrete supports, it stretches for over a kilometer across the river that leads to Iguazú falls. Joining the thrum of people, I still didn’t really feel like I was about to see one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. As we continued across a dull roar began to build, and with it, my excitement. We passed visitors going the other direction, looking like they had jumped into the river instead of walked across it. With a mere 500 feet left to go, the roar became a palpable presence, and I could see columns of vapor rising in front of me. An Argentine flag flapped madly in the wind and rain, adding to the tension of the scene. More than anything, I wanted to see the source of all this noise, to understand if it was truly worth all of the attention. Finally, we came close enough to see the river in front of us drop into nothingness. Across from the edge of the boardwalk, a mere 30 feet way, was a frothing wall of cascading water, and endless torrent that disappeared into oblivion, swallowed up by the vapor it created as it crashed into the river below.
I stood stock-still for an easy 5 minutes, eyes clenched against the combination of wind, rain, and recycled vapor that swept by me. I have seen many natural creations that take my breath away: towering mountains, sweeping valleys, stretches of ocean, but this was different. It wasn’t the size, or the proximity, but the movement that drew my attention. Impossible amounts of water swept ceaselessly downward, creating an ever-changing spectacle that could capture the eyes and the imagination. Not only that, but the noise, wind, and vapor created gave this landform a sense of life that is absent in others. It was unlike anything I had seen before.

Shaking off the awe from La Garganta, and retreating from the battering wind and rain, our group retraced our steps back across the boardwalk. Next on the day’s itinerary was a scenic trip down the river that would bring us roughly back to where we had started the day. We piled into an inflatable orange raft with a few other turistas and passed a peaceful 20 minute ride hearing about the local flora and fauna from our guide, Juan. Thanks to a stroke of luck, we got the chance to have an up-close encounter with an Argentine alligator, lounging on one of the banks without a care in the world. I guess that’s what comes from being at the top of the food chain.
By the time we landed safely downriver it was 1:30 and our stomachs were reminding us that Argentine breakfasts, although delicious, don’t last forever. We found seats and cheap eats inside a little food court just in time to dodge the largest downpour of the day. The sky opened up and soaked those walking by, while I happily munched on a ham, cheese, lettuce, and tomato sandwich that really wasn’t that bad, made tastier by the fact that I was warm, dry, and surrounded by good friends.
We made short work of lunch and, as if on cue, the sun began to burn through the layer of gray clouds that had persisted since morning. I felt as if I was the subject of one of those “Claritin Clear” commercials, as if somebody had peeled back a veil to show the true colors of the world: tropical greens, yellow sun, blue sky, and strange flowers in all manner of pastel hues. We set off down a new path into what looked as if it could have been a new day, weaving past rushing waterfalls and scenic vistas underneath a sunlit jungle canopy. It wasn’t until we arrived at the first lookout, however, that I truly realized what a gift this new day was.
Spread out in front me was an enormous, panoramic view of the entire stretch of Iguazú falls. Over a dozen individual waterfalls frothed with falling water, suspended in the air before crashing down into the river to follow a course lined with sheer cliffs. Tropical birds careened across the abyss, euphoric with their power of flight. The newly-emerged sun was the clincher, illuminating the entire scene as if it were a movie set. Huge, arcing rainbows formed as the individual rays met with airborne water vapor. If La Garganta defined powerful, this view defined beautiful.

These kind of places exist?

These kind of places exist?

By this point I felt like I knew Iguazú Falls pretty well. I had gotten battered by the sheer force of La Garganta and passed through at least 5 lookouts  that took my breath away. There really was only one option left: get up close an personal, that is to say, get wet. Upon first entering the park, Matt, Katie, Jess, Becky, Marrisca, and I had all paid for a 4:00pm appointment with a boat that brought you within spitting distance of both sides of the falls. Trust me when I say that it was every bit as intense as you can imagine.
Upon boarding we were outfitted with life jackets and handed individual dry bags to stow our shoes, money, phones, cameras, and anything else that we didn’t want to be absolutely soaked. Our little jetboat took off towards the base of the falls, weaving and bouncing around the waves tossed up by crashing water. With an extra burst, the pilot sent us into the shroud of mist, where we were met by a bone-shaking roar and gallons upon gallons water being showered upon our little boat. I added my own voice to the hoots and hollers of the other passengers, reveling in the all-natural shower. After about 45 seconds we came out of the chaos sopping wet, but otherwise unscathed, only to shoot off towards the other end of the falls, where we repeated the experience. In between shielding my eyes against the torrent and spitting out mouthfuls of fresh Iguazu-an water I realized that now, I truly knew the falls.
Our little boat coasted safely back into port where we disembarked, leaving puddles behind us. It was just about 5:00, we were soaking wet, and the park was closing in our. Nevertheless, we had one more scenic loop that still remained undiscovered. Refusing to let a little water stop us, the group pushed back our wet hair and set off along the final path. The falling sun cast a golden light upon the entire park, drying our backs and showing yet another breathtaking perspective of the falls that seemed to whisper “peace.”

Our group landed back in Puerto Iguazú around 7:00 Saturday night. A round of tea and hot showers gave us the energy to go out and enjoy some outdoor fajitas a local Mexican joint, owned by a delightful gentleman named Miguel. Unable to pass up the $15 peso (<$2 dollar) ice cream sundaes, we returned to the same heladería to cap off one of the most amazing days in Argentina.
For the sake of time, my reader’s eyes, and my well-worked fingers, I’ll turn to a quick summary for our remaining 14 hours in Iguazú. Suffice it to say they were just as much fun as the previous 2 days. Ice cream was followed by late-night conversation over a bottle of wine at the hostel. On Sunday, I managed to convince everybody that another 7:30 wakeup was a good idea, as it gave us the opportunity to check out a local animal reserve before our bus left early that afternoon. The site was a combination conservation, rehabilitation, education project that held all manner of local animals: toucans, monkeys, turtles, guinea pig- pig hybrids, and over 15 different species of birds. That tour left us with just enough time to enjoy a simple lunch and pack up before boarding another Cama bus, this one bound for the city of Buenos Aires. We bid a fond farewell to the sleepy little city of Puerto Iguazú and settled back to recharge the batteries over the 18 hour bus ride, in which deep conversation was matched by a deep sleep.
We were back in Buenos Aires in time for classes on Monday, the warm Iguazú sun and crashing water still echoing in my mind as a sweet reminder of our trip to paradise.

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Eat Well, Live Well

Okay, so we’re going to go a little out of order here. I have to apologize to all my faithful readers for my tardiness in completing my entry on a recent trip to Iguazú falls, but trust me, there’s one in the works, and it just may be worth the wait. My original plan was to spend a quiet Sunday night finishing the account of our trip to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but something very special happened today that I just have to share: I ate some good food. To be more specific, I ate some very good food, so good that I decided there may be somebody out there who wants to hear me try to describe it. If, for whatever reason, food is not your thing, or you have something more pressing to do, I promise I won’t be offended if you leave me here and wait for the entry about Iguazú, which will include much more than my gastronomical ravings. For the rest of my fellow food lovers, try to imagine…

Last night (Saturday), my friend and fellow foodie, Katie Mercer, mentioned to me that there was “some sort of food fair thing” going on in the Palermo section of Buenos Aires this weekend. She didn’t know much about it, other than the fact that, well, there would be food. Never one to pass up an opportunity to treat my taste buds, I agreed to meet her there around lunch time for a bit of exploring.
The fair was called “Masticar,” a Spanish verb meaning “to chew,” and apparently Katie and I weren’t the only ones that had heard about it. I arrived at the exhibition area, at 2:30 only to be greeted by a line of about 500 people, wrapping around the complex and taking up about 10 city blocks. I’ll admit, I almost gave up right there. Luckily, strong sunlight and clear blue skies had given me some patience, and I decided to join the train of diners shuffling towards the entrance. We chugged along relatively quickly, and by the time Katie joined me in line the smell of sizzling meat was so strong I could almost taste it. We followed our noses through the doors, at which point I realized why so many people we were willing to stand hundreds-deep on a sidewalk during a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Dozens of vendors, from some of the most popular restaurants in Buenos Aires, had set up shop in an enormous warehouse-type space. The kitchenettes stretched down both sides of the building, spilling into an outdoor space strewn with more tents, grills, and tables. In the middle of it all were more rows of bakeries, ice cream stands, cheese, bread, olive oil, vegetable, and fruit stands. A mass of bustling people filled every ounce of available space, carrying all manner of delicious dishes.
In a half daze, Katie and I wandered through just a few of the storefronts. Gourmet sandwiches, burgers, vegetarian offerings, waffles, crepes, cheese, ice cream, cakes, pastries, coffee, beer, wine, pastas, fish, salads, sushi, grilled meats…every type of dish that I could imagine was available somewhere, ranging from grilled flatbread pizza to savory lambchops to handmade veggie burgers to seared fish. To say it was overwhelming would be an understatement, especially for someone who was surviving on a breakfast of a single banana. We were, quite literally, kid’s in a candy store. Except this wasn’t just a candy store, it was Willy Wonka’s factory. A lesser pair might have taken the easy way out, and simply thrown themselves at the first dish that looked good and wasn’t blocked by a line. It was tempting; within the first minute I saw 5 plates that I would have given the shirt off my back to enjoy, but caving that early would have been an amateur mistake. Katie and I collected ourselves and came up with a plan: We had 1.5 hours and 50 pesos worth of food tickets each. We would search, explore, do research, take notes, make selections, and then share everything. Here’s what we came away with:

To start, I fought my way through to a place called La Crocantería, which was dishing out three different types of crostini mini open-faced sandwiches. I selected two, which Katie and I enjoyed at an outdoor table with the suns warming our backs. The first layered avacado and smoked salmon, drizzled with a touch of olive oil and sprinkled with a few greens. It was simple, delicious way to break my afternoon fast. Soft, slightly salty fish tempered by smooth avacado and the satisfying crunch of crostini. The second was a little more unique: thick slices of brie cheese over caramelized onion, topped with caramelized pear. It was a crazy mixture of creamy, slightly salty, and sweet that left my taste buds ringing.

DSCN1224 DSCN1227

To follow up the “appetizer” Katie led me over to a little outdoor stand she had spotted earlier. Two women were selling taco/empanada hybrids out of brightly painted trailer, complete with mini kitchen. Katie ordered one of the little creations, selecting pork as the meat. Crispy, chewy, fatty, succulent strips of pork were paired with caramelized onions and a sweet plum sauce, all wrapped in a warm, doughy shell that could best be described as pita bread crossed with puff pastry. It was the definition of comfort food; an explosion of sinfully good texture and flavor.
After our pork “taco,” Katie had her eye on another unique offering, which was like a gourmet, savory take on carrot cake. The bottom third of a glass jar was filled with brown cake-like crumbs. This was followed with a wild carrot puree, topped with a generous layer of goat cheese. To finish, the chef stuck 3 wild carrots in the top..perfect for dipping. Again, textures and flavors went wild in my mouth. Creamy, rich goat cheese was complemented by the slight sweetness of carrot, finishing cleanly thanks to a touch of simple dryness from the cake. Delicious and totally unexpected.
Next up was what probably proved to by my favorite dish of the day. After a brief discussion to collect our thoughts (and senses), Katie and I ordered what was described as an “Apple Goat Cheese Tort.” It could quite possibly be the most amazing use of those two ingredients that I have ever had the pleasure to taste. A thin crust of puff pastry played host to a thick layer of goat cheese, this one slightly sweeter than the last, almost like a cheesecake. On top sat an equally thick layer of apples, baked with brown sugar and cinnamon so that it resembled pie filling. The whole thing was warmed just enough so that the cheese quite literally melted in you mouth. The first forkful alone would have made the whole day worth it, and I’m sure my sighs of contentment drew some stares that had nothing to do with me being a Gringo.

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yum.

With our money and time winding down, Katie and I had to make quick work of selecting a more classic dessert. We swam through the crowd and found our way over to the stand of a local bakery, weighed down with all manner of cookies, brownies, muffins, scones, and torts. We handed over our final coupons for three little sweet treats: a banana, nutella, almond cookie; a pecan, brown sugar, short bread tart, and a chocolate peanut butter brownie. We split each one down the middle and enjoyed them one at a time on our walk back towards the bus stop. The sun was warm, my stomach was happily full, and all manner of food endorphines were flowing through my brain. The only regret came from the knowledge that I may never see that much amazing food in the same place again.

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Asado With a View

In the sea of empanadas, alfajores, medialunas, and dulce de leche, there is one Argentine culinary creation that stands apart from the rest: the asadoIf forced to give a one-word translation, I suppose I would call it a barbeque, but that translation can’t even begin to encompass the meaning that asado holds for an Argentine. It would be like telling someone that the Superbowl is just a “football game.” Yes, on the most basic level the Superbowl is a football game, and yes, an asado is a BBQ, but that only begins to scratch the service of what both of these events entail. You wouldn’t really put your little brother’s pee-wee football game in the same category as the Superbowl, and flipping greasy burgers, barbeque chicken, and red hotdogs on the grill really has nothing to do with an asado.
Now, before I get too high-and-mighty with my “local” knowledge, I should admit that before my first experience, I too was woefully unfamiliar with this Argentine custom. Oh sure, I knew the gringo basics: that the word asado comes from one of the cuts of beef used, a fatty, succulent stretch of ribs placed to sizzle on the grill; I knew that the two Argentine superstars: beef and Malbec usually made an appearance, and I knew that it brought family and friends together for an evening of hearty eating.
All it took was an evening spent on the roof of a local’s apartment complex to show me how truly uniformed I was.

It was earlier in the week, around Monday or Tuesday, that Katie first came to me with the idea. She had met a delightful Argentine gentleman, a friend of a friend, a few weekends ago, and after telling him that she had yet to enjoy a true asado, he offered to show her and some friends how it was done. Obviously, Katie wasn’t about to rush headlong into the house of a stranger, but we both agreed an authentic asado was an opportunity too tempting to pass up. We recruited a few others from our group who were ready for an adventure, and agreed that Thursday after class we would give this thing a shot.Looking ahead, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. The only information I had to pull predictions from was third-person descriptions of an asado and years of backyard American barbeque. I knew classes got out at 4, we were going to buy ingredients at the supermarket, and enjoy some grilling and eating. My mental image was that of a few steaks on the grill, some cold drinks, Spanish practice, and a trip home by 8 or 9.

It was with this tentative plan in mind that Katie, Marrisca, Matt, Sarah, and I caught a bus from the University of Belgrano towards the section of the city called Olivos, where Katie’s new friend, Adolfo, had his apartment. We met him on the corner of a bustling Olivos street, where he greeted us all with warm hugs and excited questions. You would have thought we were his long-lost cousins, finally come to Buenos Aires to visit. We piled into his 5-passenger Volkswagen and headed towards the supermarket.
It was here that I first began to get a sense that I had underestimated Adolfo’s asado. He strode through the brightly-lit aisled with purpose, talking to us excitedly in Spanish and piling so much food into the cart you would have thought we were grilling for an army. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, pepper, potatoes, onions, 2 types of cheese, pork, liverwurst, chips, peanuts, bread, charcoal, beer, tequila, Fernet, and coke…a teetering food mountain took shape in the metal basket before being spilled out onto the checkout counter. Conscious of the lack of beef, Adolfo assured us that his cousin was going to be bringing the majority of the meat; we were just responsible for drinks and side dishes.
After splitting the cost (about $110 pesos each, or $16 US), we hefted our bags and added even more weight to Adolfo’s little car. Luckily, it brought us safely to his apartment without complaint. He ushered us, bags in tow, up to his tiny apartment on the 8th floor. With a contagious smile affixed to his face, Adolfo found us all chairs, set up his projector-screen television, encouraged us to play TV or music to our liking, and disappeared into the kitchen only a few feet away. He returned minutes later with drinks, chips, peanuts, and a tray of bread and liverwurst, pausing only long enough to give Sarah a quick lesson in dancing Cumbia. By the time the second round of Quilmes had been drained out of our glasses, Adolfo’s cousin, Pablo, came through the door, carrying shopping bags full of meat and wearing a complementary smile. Looking around the one-person apartment, I began to wonder exactly how Adolfo meant to go about preparing this gargantuan meal. I asked about the spatial restriction tentatively, not wanting to offend the host that had already done so much for us. Adolfo only laughed and explained that oh no, we weren’t eating here; we were going up.

The elevator brought us, food in tow, up to the 12th floor. We followed Adolfo up a few more flights of stairs, around a corner, through a door, and emerged in what can only be described as a rooftop dining room. There was a large table with chairs to seat about 20 people, enclosed in 4 glass walls that gave a view of the darkened city skyline. One door led out of the “dining room” into an outdoor grill area, shielded from the light drizzle by a strategically placed overhang. The other door, set into the back wall, led out onto a spacious terrace. Our group rushed out into the brisk wind, coats flapping around us as we “oohed” and “ahhed” at the view. Bringing up the rear, Adolfo pointed us towards a small staircase, which led to the true rooftop, on top of the dining room. The city was spread out like a map. The silent residential neighborhood of Olivos gave way to a sea of twinkling lights: white, yellow, red, orange, and blue, crowned by the looming silhouettes of commercial skyscrapers. To the east, we could see a stretch of darkness that, had it been light, would have shown us Río de la Plata and Uruguay. I spun the full 360 degrees, taking in the world around me. The hovering clouds reflected the city’s light back upon itself, softly illuminating the entire sky to produce a dreamy, twilight effect. It was, needless to say, beautiful.

Lost in the sights, I almost forgot the reason we were up here- almost. Realizing there was major work to be done, our group trouped back down to the dining room, where Pablo had taken on culinary responsibility. He had stoked a fire underneath the hanging grill, creating a glistening pile of coals over which sat an enormous assortment of meats and veggies. In the style of asado, the meat is slow-cooked over constant heat, which meant that we had about 2 hours to enjoy before our main dishes were ready. That didn’t mean, of course, that we weren’t going to be eating; Pablo had a string of appetizers to keep us occupied. Taking Adolfo’s advice, we sat back, poured a few “Fernet con Coca,” turned up the music, and let flow of careless conversation sweep us away. The only interruptions came from a new dish, and oh what delicious interruptions they were: Grilled red peppers covered in olive oil, chips and homemade guacamole, bubbling cheese with baguettes, and, the grandaddy of it all, a creation that can only be described as a “pork pizza.” On top of a thin, broad cut of pork sat tomato sauce, cheese, and ham, carefully grilled until it was dripping fat and practically oozing “sinful.”

About the time the first “pizza” was being placed on the table, a second wave of visitors arrived. Adolfo’s brother, Fernando, stepped through the door, leading 4 young ladies and carrying another round of drinks. Introductions were quickly made, and the newcomers sat down to add their own voices to the buzz of conversation. A mixture of Spanish, English, music, and laughter echoed off the walls, filling the room with a palpable warmth that had nothing to do with the temperature.
I lost myself in the comradery of it all, and before I knew it, Pablo came from the grill with the grand finale: sizzling platters of good, red, Argentine beef- a collection of different cuts. Thanks to the earlier parade of dishes, my stomach was already plenty full, but as I quickly learned, being full really has nothing to do with eating at an asado. The meat was juicy, succulent, and delicious, and everyone enjoyed more than their fill. Just when I thought I had seen it all, Pablo placed the blood sausage onto the table. The description of this delicacy is almost as unappetizing as the name: to put it simply, blood is boiled down until it goes from a liquid to a solid-ish goop. This “goop” is stuffed into a thick casing, creating a thick, black sausage that is grilled for long hours before being cut into small sections and served to the brave diner. Those who aren’t scared off by the process will find an absolutely unique dish that is rich, thick, and savory, perfect when perched on a crunchy slice of baguette. Even my overly-full stomach couldn’t keep me from going back for seconds. I finally through in the towel, or in this case, napkin, and sat back in my chair to swap English and Spanish slang words with Fernando. Matt, Katie, and Sarah joined in the fun, and before long we were acting out typical American greetings while Fernando filmed us on his iPhone.

By the time the last drops were drained out of glasses and the swell of conversation began to subside, it was almost 1:30 in the morning. We helped Adolfo, Fernando, and Pablo gather up all of the dishes and leftovers (yes, there was almost enough food to hold another asado) and bring them back down to the apartment. Adolfo absolutely refused our offers to help with the dishes and cleanup.
“This time, I am the host. When I come to the United States, you’ll cook for me, and I’ll sit back and do nothing.”
Sounds like a deal to me.

With those plans set, we bade a fond farewell to our new friends, full of handshakes, hugs, and promises that we would see them again in the States. I can truly say that these were genuine promises, not just the type you tell to soften a goodbye. If Adolfo, Pablo, or Fernando ever make their way to New York (as they said they would), you can be sure I’ll do my best to get over there and repay them for this amazing lesson what really is an asado.

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Big Mountains, Big Love – Part II

For the second time in 24 hours, I was treated to a view of the snow-capped Andes from the windows of a bus. Only this time, the mountains were alongside us, instead of in the distance, and I was going to take advantage of their presence, instead of just appreciating the breath-taking beauty. Our bus wound through the peaks on bumpy, hard-packed dirt roads. Had I not been on a bus surrounded by 50 other skiers and riders, I would have thought we were driving into the middle of nowhere. After about 40 minutes gradual climbing, I caught my first glimpse of Las Leñas ski resort, rolling mounds of white, soft and inviting, topped with scraggly brown points and strung with a black web of ski lifts. On every side were more peaks, each decorated with its own unique combination of snow and rock, and each more powerful than the last. It was like an enormous fence, set down to keep out the rest of the world. It was beautiful.

Getting off the bus, I was greeted by a brisk wind and gray skies that reminded me that here, at least, it was still winter. I collected my gear and started walking towards the cluster of buildings at the base of mountain. At this point, you might have thought that I was ecstatic, that I was ready to sprint towards the lift and strap in with my pack still on my back. No; in reality, I felt as if I had just come home after a long trip. I have been in more ski area parking lots than I can count, and the routine from there is as relaxing and familiar as making breakfast:
Get to the ticket booth; set down board; change into ski clothes; stow away gear; buy ticket; walk towards lift; strap in; get in line; head up.
It wasn’t until I was taking the view from a gently humming lift, board strapped to my feet, that I began to get some inkling that things were different. The snowfields of Las Leñas splayed out below, above, and to the sides. The clouds cleared, and fresh, warm sunlight illuminated the surrounding mountains, making them pop as if they had just gotten a fresh coat of white paint. The view was incredible, but it wasn’t until I set my first tracks into South-American snow that the endorphins started flowing in full force. I was doing it. I was snowboarding. In summer. In Argentina.
For the next 3 runs I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. I savored each turn, feeling the increasingly-soft snow give way to my heels and toes, hearing the smooth friction of my board on the slope, like blowing air through closed teeth. Tsshhh, Tsshh, Tsshh. After a few runs, I was able to shake off a little of the disbelief and settle into the rhythm that comes with riding alone.  You let the board take you where it will, creating a steady stream of laps punctuated by lift conversation or quiet musing. It is thoughtless, medatative, and amazing.
It could have been like any other solo day, if not for the fact that it was a brand new mountain, in the Andes, and the lift conversations were in Spanish. I met a guy named Facundo, and linked up with him and a friend. By this time the sun was out in full force, and the trails were getting softer with every run. Between that, the temperature, and the relaxed atmosphere, it almost felt like a spring day at Sugarloaf. I took a string of runs with my new amigos before taking their advice and heading across to check out the other side of the resort.
Three straight lift rides brings you to the tallest peak at Las Leñas, where the view hits you with full force. I spent one of the lift rides enjoying a thick and delicious PB and banana sandwich that I stuffed into my snowpants early in the morning, allowing me to skip going in for lunch. I spent the early afternoon enjoying beautiful sights and long runs, before pointing my board back towards the lower mountain sunlight. I finally finished out the day around 4:45 with tired legs and a enormous grin stuck to my face. The day had been absolutely everything that I could have hoped, and I couldn’t have been more satisfied. I caught the 6:00 bus, was back to the hostel by 1:00, and fell gratefully into the lower bunk for a well-deserved rest.

(**Note: For the sake of time, I’m going to try to shorten the rest of the account just to get this post published. It was, after all, about 3 weeks ago, and I’ve done a few other things since then that could be worthy of documenting. So bear with me, and use a little imagination to fill the holes that I leave.)

The next day, Sunday, Jess and I had reserved a spot for an all day hike, or trek as they say here in Argentina. After a hearty breakfast of crepes, cereal, eggs, coffee, and fruit, we headed to the lobby to meet our group. It was an international mix: a couple from England, a “mate” from Australia, two Argentine guides, and 2 lowly American college students (Jess and me). We loaded into a shuttle, and for the second time in as many days, I was headed to play in the Andes! I traded the snowboard boots for hiking boots, and the snow for 75 degree sun and a desert-like landscape. But mountains are mountains, and I will always feel at home there.
Our group quickly fell into step along a rocky trail, lined with shrubs and a few cacti. I spent the first part of the hike talking to one of our guides, Jesús. Like any outdoorsman, he was passionate about preserving the world that we enjoy so much. In fact, both he and our other guide, Juan, are Environmental Conservation majors at their university in Mendoza. He had thoughts and hopes for the world that would have made Eric Brown proud.
I spent the rest of the hike bouncing around the group. I learned the Spanish names of local plants and animals from Juan and Jesus, talked to the English couple about their planned year-long trip around the globe, and discovered that our Australian friend, Jason, had been doing ultimate fighting since the age of 14. Between solving the world’s problems and dreaming of potential trips, our group managed to summit two peaks, take in the amazing sights, and make our way back down with tired legs and another tick mark on the Argentine bucket list. We toasted to the trip in a restaurant at the base of the mountains before heading back to Hostel Empedrado for shower and change of clothes. For dinner, Jess and I joined a young couple from Norway for cheap pizza underneath a dark Mendoza sky. Warm conversation was matched by a warm night, which was matched a warm bed.

Finally, Monday rolled around, and to complete the Mendoza trifecta, I geared up for a bicycle tour of the local wineries. After all, no trip to Mendoza is complete without sampling a fair share of Argentine Malbec. Jess sat this one out, and instead I was joined by Jason, the Aussie from yesterday’s hike. We caught a bus to a rental shop about 30 minutes outside the city. The gentleman who runs it is named Mr. Hugo, and he just may be the nicest man on the planet. No exaggeration. He sat Jason and I down in front of his shop (which doubles as his home), and talked us through a map of the 15+ bodegas that were available within a 5 mile radius. We hopped on well-loved bikes and headed off towards wine country. It was another typical day in Mendoza: sunny, 75, and a blueberry sky. It will be a lone time before I forget the sight of miles of vineyard, colored by the sun and framed by an enormous snow-capped peak.
Unfortunately, I had to be back at the hostel by 5 to catch the bus for Buenos Aires, so my time in this paradise was all-too limited. With that in mind, Jason and I pedaled hard until we stumbled, quite at random, onto Los Vientos bodega, part of the Trivento brand, which is one of the largest in all of South America. It was here that I was treated to my first ever winery experience. It was a 40 minute, VIP tour that gave us an explanation of the philosophy and process behind Los Vientos wine. It was masterfully done, and by the time we arrived to the tasting room my mouth was watering. Our guide talked us through the looking, smelling, swirling, and (finally!) sipping of a Malbec and a Chardonnay. We were giddy with the experience and the flavor, and began tossing around words such as: dark, rich, velvety, plum, leather, spice, (Malbec) bright, clear, crisp, apple, citrus (Chardonnay). I gained a new appreciation for how wine could taste, especially after knowing its roots.
After Los Vientos, our guide recommended a small, family winery called Familia Di Tomasso. Jason and I arrived just in time for a tasting of 4 different wines: Malbec, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a liquor called Vino Generoso that is made from grapes, but tastes more of honey and apple than wine. They were, obviously, delicious, and could only be bought on premises. The Di Tomasso property also gave a glimpse at the other end of the spectrum: small, family-owned, and traditional, compared to the industrial, professional nature of Los Vientos.
Sadly, after this visit it was time for me to head back towards the hostel. I could have spent 3 days touring the vineyards, but didn’t think my teachers would accept enjoying wine as an excuse for missing class. Mr. Hugo sent me off with a few cups of lemonade, a bottle of my own Malbec, and a hug. I got back to Empedrado with just enough time to pack up and catch a bus back towards the big city. I could feel the memory of snow, sun, mountains, wine, good food, and great people tugging at me, but departure was made easier knowing that I will, without a doubt, be back to Mendoza. Anywhere that sits at the base of a world-famous mountain range is my kind of place.

Sun, Mountains, and Wine...no wonder everyone in Mendoza is so happy

Sun, Mountains, and Wine…no wonder everyone in Mendoza is so happy

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Big Mountains, Big Love – Part I

Finally, after almost a week of delay, I’ve found time to try to describe my trip to Mendoza. As always, I’ll remind you that my account here really can’t do justice to the full nature of the experience: the emotions, excitement, everyday observations, and little events that make a trip truly memorable. Still, for my sake and yours, I want to give at least a small taste of the delicious treat I enjoyed two weekends ago.

Mendoza was the second major trip of the semester, alongside the stay at La Margarita in Tapalque. The estancia was a warmup; a 6 hour bus ride, couple nights away, and simple itinerary served to give me the feel for Argentine travel. Mendoza, on the other hand, was going to be the real deal. I had a set itinerary, two sets of bus tickets, hopes, dreams, and carefully controlled expectations. My travel companion for the voyage was a girl named Jess, a freshman at Colorado University, and the youngest member of our API group. About a week prior to my departure, I posted my itinerary on the API Facebook page, and Jess decided to come along for the ride. Throughout the entire trip, our conversation and interactions coursed with the excited thrum of two people who don’t know each other very well, but still look to the other for support in an unfamiliar place. Again, I was given proof that although they may come from all walks of life, people who seek out travel can always find a common connection.
The trip to Mendoza started in much the same way as that to Tapalque: departing from Retiro bus terminal in the upper deck, reclining in a semi-cama seat and day-dreaming of the adventures to come. The trip to Mendoza, however, is roughly 15 hours instead of 6. Jess and I were able to put the comfortable seats to good use, and day-dreams soon faded into real dreams. I passed a night of travel through the darkened Argentine countryside, waking at about 7:30 to a view of the Pampas. As we neared our destination, I got my first view of the famous Andes. They appeared in much the same way as the Rockies, towering, snow-capped peaks rising out of an otherwise flat landscape. The sight itself was like a steady stream of fresh air, fanning the smoldering excitement that had been building in my gut since I started planning this trip. I was finally back where I felt most at home- in the mountains.

Jess and I left the Mendoza Bus Terminal and headed into the heart of the city in search of what would be our home base for the weekend, Hostel Empedrado. It sat tucked into a corner of the web of avenues, on historic cobblestone street. This was my first ever experience, and it turned out to be just about everything my wandering mind had conjured up. Our room held three tightly packed, well-loved bunks that were the perfect place for a tired traveler to pass out. Downstairs was a series of rooms for lounging, cooking, eating, and watching TV, all plastered with calendars and travel flyers. An eclectic mixture of people went about their business with baggy clothes and unshaven cheeks. Honestly, if felt more like a home than any hotel I’ve ever been to.
The long journey had left us with plenty of pent-up energy, so Jess and I dropped off our stuff and quickly ventured off to explore our new surroundings. The city of Mendoza is to Buenos Aires what Burlington or Portland is to New York. Where BA is rushed, bustling, and in-your-face with activity, Mendoza is relaxed, controlled, and calm. Oh sure, there are all of the ingredients of a city: plenty of people, cars, taxis, buses, gutters, shops, restaurants, and businesses laid out in blocks. The substance is the same, but the feel is totally different. If Buenos Aires is a pounding waterfall, Mendoza is a wide, meandering river.
Jess and I placed ourselves in the current and drifted through the streets for some time, enjoying the sights and good vibes. Eventually our feet led us to a simple lunch outside, followed by a visit to sample the confections at a chocolate “factory.” We picked up ingredients for a taco dinner, and I visited a ski shop to rent a snowboard and boots. You see, I was in view of mountains, and there was no way I could come this close without strapping in and seeing what the Southern Hemisphere had to offer for snow and steeps. In my room were snowpants, jacket, and a second set of bus tickets, granting me passage to Las Leñas ski resort. My bus was set to leave at 2am that night.
With another bus trip looming, I thought to just make a relaxed dinner at the hostel and ready myself for the trip. The travel gods, however, obviously had other plans. We were sitting in the TV room around 6:30, watching a soccer match with a group of Aussies and Englishmen, when the woman from the front desk came in to ask if anyone felt like playing real “futbol.” A group of guys from Empedrado and another hostel had a game scheduled…but they needed extra players.
Now, I should preface this by stating the obvious: Argentines are good at soccer. I’m not joking when I say I have seen groups of 12 and 14-year olds playing in the park that could dribble circles around me. In a typical group of guys my age (and older), probably about 80% of them could play D1. It’s in their blood; it’s their passion. I knew all this, but also knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I passed up the opportunity to play real futbol with Argentines. I put my name on the list, and next thing I knew, I was packed into a shuttle with a group of happily chatting guys, destined for a nearby field.
We arrived after 5 minutes, and all piled out onto a small, turf field. We were 12 in all, and the field was perfect size for a 6-v-6 game. The teams were a colorful mixture of Argentines, a few English blokes, a traveler from Germany, a kid from Chicago, and yours truly. Yells in a mixture of languages punctuated the rapid passing, and the overhead lights gave the simple game a larger-than-life feeling. I played with all skill that my limited training and carefully maintained fitness would allow. I was probably one of the least valuable players out there, but the focus was more on fun than winning, and the feeling of international comradery was palpable. I finished the hour of play with a smile on my face, and we toasted a good game with cold beer.

I was back in the Hostel Empedrado in time to whip up a dinner of beef fajitas and pack my bags for a trip to Las Leñas. I caught a taxi at 1:30 am with another girl, a Colorado native, who was going to be at Las Leñas for the week. I checked my board, climbed on the bus, and settled in for another night’s sleep in a semi-cama seat. Sleep came easily, considering I felt like a child on Christmas Eve. You see, I was less than 10 hours away from having snow underneath my feet again…

…which is a story for next time. One of these times I’ll be able to fit a trip into a single blog post, but this is not it. Look for an account of my adventures in Mendoza’s mountain playground, coming soon to a computer near you!

 

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“Making Banana Pancakes…”

….”pretend like its the weekend, yeah.”

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I took advantage of a class-less Friday morning to make a batch of banana pancakes for my host family. A few weeks ago I discovered that Flor, the daughter of my host mom, Maria, had never tried pancakes in her life. Now, I don’t know about you, but this fluffy comfort food has been the highlight of many-a-morning, and it just doesn’t seem right that someone can go 26 years without enjoying a stack of flapjacks. That, combined with the fact that I brought a small bottom of Maine maple syrup with me as a housewarming gift, meant that it was my responsibility to introduce the breakfast staple.
I decided that if I was going to do this, I had to do it right. I found a classic recipe online, sifted the flour, cracked the eggs, sizzled some butter, and dropped delicate spoonfuls of batter into a warm pan. Thinly sliced bananas went in to add some extra flavor, and we broke the seal on a jug of Sweet Williams syrup. Between bites, I gave my best Spanish explanation of how exactly maple syrup is made, as well as anecdotes about IHOP and my own pancake experiences. To cap it off, I pulled out my itouch and played Jack Johnson’s “Banana Pacakes.” The last notes coincided with the last bites, and not a crumb was left in sight. I would call the morning a success.

From there I had to get out the door quickly and meet our group in San Telmo, one of the most-visited barrios in Buenos Aires. If you recall, it was in this same neighborhood that my dad and I had a dinner to remember at El Baqueano restaurant. Today, it wasn’t our sense of taste that was appeased, but our sense of sight. We had the unique opportunity to meet an artist native to Buenos Aires, Fernanda Piamonti. She is a pretty young woman who has been painting since the age of 10. In the last decade, she has left the traditional media of oil and acrylic behind in favor of charcoal, clay, and, her favorite, petroleum. She uses the black, sticky substance to create abstract portraits and landscapes. Ironically, the dark, foreboding emotions that these paintings communicate are completely at odds with Fernanda’s bubbly personality. Nevertheless, they are very impressive.
Not only did we get a tour of Fernanda’s apartment studio, but we also got to watch as she created a piece from the bottom up: a portrait of one the girls in our group, Marrisca. Fernanda’s only tools were a 3 x 4″ piece of canvas, gloves, a CD, and copious amounts of tar-like petroleum. She worked for about 20 minutes. The end result was a powerful depiction of Marrisca’s face, composed of stained canvas poking through smears of black. We gave both Fernanda and Marrisca a round of applause, and said our goodbyes with Argentine kisses and well-wishes.

After a quick pass through the Buenos Aires Musuem of Modern Art, our group decided it was time for a late lunch. We trekked back towards a small café that had caught my eye earlier solely because of the delicious-looking bread I had seen served to an outside table. Truthfully, I was just going with my gut (pun intended).
It turned out to be an excellent decision. The café was vegetarian-inspired, and boasted a host of fresh, wholesome ingredients on a menu made up of sandwiches, smoothies, and creative entrees. Some of the dishes that made their way to out table were: vegetarian pizza with whole grain crust, pesto, cheese, arugula, tomato, and caramelized onion; vegetarian fajitas stuffed with mushroom, onion, cheese, homemade guacamole, salsa, and sour cream; an avacoda, tomato, cheese, mayo, and chicken sandwich served warm on seedy brown bread. To drink, I got a yogurt-fig-honey smoothie that was out of this world. Needless to say, I left the table with my stomach ready to burst with delicious food.

 

On a completely unrelated note, I need to apologize for a serious gap in my current blog posts. Last weekend I took a 5-day trip to Mendoza for skiing, trekking, and wine-touring. It was quite possibly my best weekend yet in Argentina, and I haven’t had the time to do it justice in the blog. I’m hoping I can give a halfway-decent summary of the trip at some point this weekend, but for now I encourage you to check out my Facebook for pictures of all of the wonderful adventures.

For now, Ciao!

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From Gastronomy Guru to Galloping Gaucho – Part III

I’ve often heard it said that travel gives you a true appreciation for how big the Earth really is. I’ve had a few, very small, chances to experience this: drives around New England, a visit to Canada, a ski trip in Utah, and finally a 6,000 mile flight down to the Southern Hemisphere. By the time I touched down in Buenos Aires I was starting to think, “yeah, I think I might have got a handle on the size of the world. If not the world, then the American continent, and if not the continent at least the country. It was only 3 or 4 hours into the bus ride towards Tapalque that I realized how wrong I was.
A quick geography lesson on the country that is Argentina: the 8th largest in the world, it stretches from the southern border of Brazil all the way down to the tip of South America. The city of Buenos Aires, where I live, sits about smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic coastline. Heading north will bring you to Brazil, Iguazú Falls, and eventually the Amazon. South is the legendary land called Patagonia. West will bring you through a great stretch of plains called Las Pampas before you eventually you hit the Andes. La Margarita, like the majority of Argentine estancias, was tucked into a small corner of Las Pampas, not even a quarter of the way between me and the mountains. I knew all of this prior to my departure on Saturday afternoon, but I didn’t really know it. Looking out the window of our bus I was struck by how much there was- of everything. First, the sprawling suburbs of Buenos Aires, low-income housing with tin roofs and kids on bikes. Then came massive stretches of…nothing really. Perfectly flat farmland, dotted with herds of cattle, shabby fences, and hundreds of miles of road. About every 25 minutes we’d come upon a town made up of blocks of dirt roads, a collection of houses, a gas station, and a handful of shops.

Tapalque was one of these very towns; one of those places where 50 years could pass and nothing would really change. Becky and I climbed off the bus and looked around for our ride to La Margarita, which is located about 12 km from the town center. A blonde-haired woman approached us, fully decked out in guacho gear: loose jeans, layered flannel shirts, a scarf, floppy hat, and cigarette between her lips.
“Chicos, por La Margarita?”
Becky and I gave an excited confirmation and followed our new compañera, named Malí, towards an old, pick-up truck that had La Margarita stenciled in fading black cursive on either door. Inside the truck we met Mario, a young Argentine native who came to Tapalque after working at a different Estancia for some years. He and Malí brought us to the local fruitstand and supermarket, where we stocked up on produce, snacks, and ingredients for dinner. By the time we arrived at the door of our home for the weekend, night was fully upon us. Inside of the bright pink building was a simple kitchen, complete with miniature stove, sturdy table, fridge, and a few cabinets. A woodstove was tucked into the back right corner, and I wasted no time stoking a cheerfully crackling fire. Becky and I could feel the wear from a full day of travel, so we contented ourselves with sipping hot chocolate, making dinner, and playing an icebreaker game called “Family Dinner” that we found hidden in one of the cabinets. In many ways it was reminiscent of a night at Pappy’s cabin in the mountains of Maine. No tv, no distractions; just hearty food, a warm fire, good company, and simple fun.

Fresh morning sunlight gave me the chance to fully investigate the surroundings. The unit Becky and I shared was one of four in a strip. Our back windows looked out on a small pen containing a family of happily-scratching pigs. Looking out from the front door, one could see the horse barn and one side of the main house on the La Margarita property. Chickens clucked around your feet, horses whinnied in the background, and a group of four dogs got into various forms of mischief. After a month in the city, these simple sounds were music to my ears; the enormous stretches of sun-washed plain and blue sky were more beautiful than any painting displayed in a stuffy museum.

Malí knocked on the front door around 10:30 to escort us to the barn, where our trusty steeds awaited the morning ride. I had a fiery, chestnut-colored lady named “Diabla,” which translates to she-devil. Becky sat atop a sweet horse whose white coloring earned her the name “Nieve,” the Spanish word for snow. Our posse, complete with Mario and Malí, mounted up and headed out into pasture for an easy one-hour loop.
I’ve always had a special spot in my heart for horses. Part of it is definitely genetic; my mom spent much of her childhood caring for her own horse, and has various experiences working on ranches and farms in the West. I grew up around this, along with occasional trips to the mighty estate of Dr. Walter Titus Carpenter, my great-grandfather. Dr. Carpenter, known to friends, family, and patients as “Docky,” kept a paddock with a handful of horses that I would treat with carrots and love. My clinching horse moment, however, was seeing the movie “Hidalgo” at age 12. I walked out of the theater determined to ride horses like Viggo Mortensen, and spent the next 3 years taking lessons. I may never gallop a horse across the desert, but I did pick up a little bit of knowledge.
All of these memories eased their way back into my  mind during our first morning ride, and by the time Diabla and I cantered back towards the barn I could feel my inner gaucho stirring, ready for more. Luckily, I had signed up for a longer ride later in the afternoon. Becky and I relaxed, lunched, and took a pair of rickety bicycles out to explore the dirt roads around La Margarita before I headed back for my second date with Diabla.

This was a longer ride, 3 hours to be exact, and it was during this one where I learned how Diabla got her name. It was as if the little she-devil had a fire burning in her legs; at the slightest slack I could full her entire body poised to take off across the Pampas. She would grudgingly listen when I shortened the lead and whisper “Tranquila Diabla.” More than few times, however, I loosened up even more, sat back in the saddle, and we took off at a rapid canter, the wind causing water to bead in my eyes. By the time we slowed again, both of us would be out of breath, and I’d have a smile plastered to my flushed face.
When not dashing across the Pampas, I spent the ride talking with Mario and Malí – all in Spanish, of course. I asked Malí about her home in Germany and her travels across South America. Mario was quieter, but would occasionally add a sly comment or joke in the rapidly slurred dialect of a gaucho. By the time we arrived back at the gates of La Margarita, the sun was dipping below the horizon, casting brilliant shades of red and yellow across the sky. It was, without a doubt, one of the most scenes I have had the pleasure to see.

The sun might be gone, but our day was far from over. Within 15 minutes of my return, Becky and I hopped back into the La Margarita pickup truck for a ride to la pulpería, an authentic gaucho bar/convenience store that has been in operation since the late 1800’s. We were joined by Malí and Raquel, the house cook at the estancia. Stepping out of the truck we were greeted by the bright twinkle of stars above, something I hadn’t seen since arriving in Buenos Aires. We took seats at an ancient wooden bar and ordered Fernet con Coca, the national cocktail of Argentina. The next hour was filled with easy conversation, a platter of salami and cheese, and even a spurt of dancing, inspired by music drifting from the dusty radio in the corner. As our hunger grew a little sharper, we headed back towards La Margarita, where Becky and I had an asado waiting for us.
Asado is the Argentine term for a grand barbeque. Every other restaurant in the city will offer their version of the event, and they can range from smaller ordeals to a full side of beef. Tonight Raquel’s protegé had prepared a spread of various salads (potato, carrot, greens), bread, butter, wine, and delicately grilled beef. As an added bonus, Becky and I were joined for dinner by an family of 4 that had just arrived from their home in the Buenos Aires province. The mother, father, and two young girls had never met anyone from the United States, and they excitedly asked us about some of the typical stereotypes that come with the US.
“Do you eat only fast food?”
“Is it all big cities, or are there small towns, too?”
“What do they say about Argentina?”
Becky and I did our best to give them a glimpse of life in Kansas (where she lives) and Maine and matched their questions with some of our own. By the time a dessert of chocolate mousse was set down in front of us, the father was comfortable enough to share his views on politics and the sentiment of the Argentine people. I was amazed by how similar his thoughts were to my own musings about the world, and those of my friends and family. He voiced his belief that the people of the world were ready for change, a movement away from violence towards “paz y amor” (Peace and Love). Amen mi amigo, amen.

Our final day at La Margarita started in the same way as the previous, with an hour-long ride around the pastures underneath warm sun and blue sky. Becky and I got a chance to try some of the infamous Tapalque ice cream, made with fresh milk from local cows. Raquel informed us that it was actually one of her sons that made the sinful concoctions with his wife, and invited us to share a late lunch with her and her family. We ended up seated at the end of a long picnic table for another asado, surrounded by 15 or 16 members of Raquel’s delightful family. Sons, daughters, spouses, and grandchildren all welcomed us with open arms, excited questions, and full plates. You would have thought Becky and I were long lost cousins who had finally come back for a visit. Raquel’s son, the ice cream maker, begged us to come back to Tapalque, as we still had yet to check out his Pizza place, ice cream shop, and humble bed and breakfast. He even offered to let us stay for free if we ever came back! Coincidentally, he also turned out to be a strong proponent of “paz y amor,” using the exact same phrase as the father from the night before. Small world, huh?

Some of our new family at La Margarita

Some of our new family at La Margarita

The incredible lunch was just another amazing example of the hospitality that runs so thick in this Argentine culture. It is these types of experiences that really affirm my belief that people are intrinsically good, and that regardless of the country or culture you can always find individuals who want to share their happiness with you. That is exactly what every single person we met in Tapalque, from the fruit stand vendor to the pulpería clerk, had been trying to do.
At the end of it all, Becky and I exchanged hugs and cheek kisses with the whole Margarita crew. We boarded our bus home with tired legs, full stomachs, and warmed hearts.

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