Strange, with only two months in Buenos Aires, that typically friendly Argentine greeting instantly set me at ease, like I am home. After two weeks of traveling, I guess I am home - or at least where I currently park myself when not on the road.
* * *
“Acá?” my friend J. asked as he pointed at the tourist map. Detecting our American and French accent, the hostel attendant seemed amused and smilingly corrected us. “Aquí,” she corrected us using what Spanish speakers in most other Latin American countries would use for “here.” How easily one adapts to the language of your host country - except we’re in Uruguay, not Argentina!
Crossing the Río de la Plata into Uruguay is about as easy as entering France via the English Channel. After checking in at the Buquebus ferry station in Buenos Aires, immigration and customs officials from Argentina and Uruguay efficiently processed passengers through the formalities. In a little under an hour, I had crossed the muddy waters of the Río de la Plata and was on foot to find a bed for the night in Colonia del Sacramento.
Stretching approximately 50 kilometers wide, the Río de la Plata both connects and separates Argentina and Uruguay. The two nations share many things in common; both speak with a similar accent, a common history with the Spanish motherland, and the near fanatical habit of drinking mate.
It was not always so peaceful. During more turbulent times, the Portuguese crown occupied what is now Uruguay and had designs on the modest Spanish settlement that is now Buenos Aires. Colonia was established as a fort to deter Spanish incursion north of the river and to monitor Castilian maritime activities in the region.
Colonia is like a town frozen in time. Ceded to the Spanish in exchange for Madrid’s recognition of the Portuguese crown’s dominion in Brazil, the town lost its former raison d’être. Possessing little industry, Colonia’s historic old city is tidily preserved; the old city gate and a section of the fortification still remain to welcome modern day visitors. To Porteños, Colonia is a daytrip to enjoy what Buenos Aires doesn’t offer – soft sandy beaches along the river. To many North American and European expatriates living in the Río de la Plata region, the ferry crossing is an easy trip to renew one’s 90-day tourist visa.
* * *It is good to be on the road again. After weeks of being stationary in Buenos Aires, I am happy to be traveling again - to see new places and to explore. Travelers tend to be kind; we exchange information about logistics, places to visit, books to trade, and share meals and wine. In a short night in Colonia, I broke bread with a Canadian, a Norwegian, a Quebecoise, and a French girl. Conversations flowed freely and some of us exchanged contact information with the promise of future encounters. Who knows if we will ever meet again?
But some travelers also astound me with their lack of regard for the local culture and language. An European I met in Colonia, despite 2 months in Buenos Aires, didn’t know how to order a beer in Spanish. An American I ran into in Argentina, marched right up to a Porteño and demanded in one word “bathroom!” No "please" or "por favor." Perhaps their time in South America is so short they cannot bring themselves to be polite?
One issue with being away from Buenos Aires is that I am not in my Spanish class. However, outside of conversations with my friends and other travelers, I try to speak exclusively in Spanish. This brought both amusement and compliments from South Americans. In many places, obviously accustomed to throngs of tourists and well versed in English to serve their business needs, they seemed pleased and humored to see a foreigner making the effort to speak their language. Many replied to me in English but reverted to their native tongue after noticing my efforts to engage in Spanish. In addition, once outside of touristic areas, Spanish is king and I've no other option but to improve.
* * *“You speak Spanish with a Porteño accent,” Mauro*, one of Bikes and Wines’s employees giggled. That comment was later echoed by Alejandro, an amiable young mountain guide we hired to take us up the 3,500 meters tall Cerro Arenales near Mendoza. "Malas palabras," Alejandro laughingly joked. "You're learning all the bad words from Buenos Aires."
“Well at least I’m learning something in Buenos Aires,“ I thought to myself. It was shortly after 10am, almost a little early for wine tastings.
Originally the idea sounded intriguing. What could be more fun than visiting Mendoza wineries on bike!
However, with an empty stomach and five or six wineries to visit for the day, I imagined the prospect of falling off the bike after a wee tipple and like Humpty Dumpty never getting up again. Further, unlike the quaint country lanes of Napa Valley or the Santa Ynez, Mendoza’s wineries are set in the working neighborhoods of Maipu and Luján de Cuyo. That translated into Mendocinos going about their daily lives and city buses and cars roaring past us.
“Hola! de dónde sos?” the owner of Bikes and Wines and the adjacent ice cream shop greeted me. “Soy de California,” I replied, “from California.” When J. pulled in and the proprietor heard his accent and asked my friend “Vous être francais? – are you French?” So the conversation went on in English, Spanish, and French.
“They call me Gulí,” he said. With a friendly wave he invited us to sit down for ice cream after we had returned the mountain bikes. Among many flavors on the offering one he is experimenting is Malbec ice cream. Introducing us to two of his friends sitting on the terrace, Gulí returned to serving his customers, both travelers and Mendocinos.
Traveling in South America, one becomes accustomed, or even immune, to seeing poverty. It is everywhere, in the subway, on the streets, casually but constantly confronting you; the shoeless children begging for coins; the older ladies who should be enjoying their retirement but instead is selling cookies on the street corners.
However, while Argentina, like any country, has issues lifting its economically challenged population into middle class, education is excellent. Most Argentine university graduates speak far better English than I can manage in Spanish. Many are also fluent in French. Biking around Mendoza’s wineries, I rode past a secondary school advertising its instructions in Spanish, English, and German. With Gulí and his two friends, our conversation flowed from English to French. I requested the opportunity to use my Spanish and they were happy to oblige. One lady, who was quite advanced in age, even told me she is learning Chinese!
* * *
“Watch out for flying fruits!” Mike at Hostel Lao cautioned. Mike is an Englishman who left the United Kingdom, traveled the world, and settled amongst the vines with a Mendocina who speaks Spanish as if she is singing.
With that warning I was off to see one of the world’s biggest wine festivals. Starting with the Bishop’s blessing of the grapes on the last day of February, the culmination of Mendoza’s wine harvest festival, or Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia, kicked off with Vía Blanca, or the parade of queens.
Designed to promote Mendoza as a wine region, each department within the province is represented by a queen. Ranging from 18 – 25 years old, smartly dressed and parading about downtown Mendoza atop lavishly designed floats, the queens vied for attention and hurled native products from their region into the crowd. It is astonishing to see these petite beauties launching objects, some quite large, 5-10 meters into the masses. In two hours, I saw grapes, apples, cantaloupes, and even bottles of wine flying through Mendoza’s brightly lit sky!
Perhaps giddy with too much Malbec, the parade announcer in front of me would turn every 15 – 20 minutes, ask where I’m from, then promptly ignore my response and cry out for the crowd to welcome the visitor from Japan.
* * *
Next, how I almost got expelled from Chile and my week by the sea in Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.
* I’m not sure if that was his name because I forgot to ask for the spelling.