Wednesday, October 21, 2009
(old) Beat by the meat sweats.
There’s nothing glamourous about the night bus. Maybe the first time it’s a bit exciting because it’s new. But the excitement is soon replaced by worry about the comfort of the seats and security of your belongings before dread sets in. Just how sore am I going to be in the morning? And in the morning, you will be stiff and covered in a layer of what I call bus slime, a charming mixture of sweat, grime and other people’s breath. It was in this condition that we got off the bus in Mendoza just before 9am. Thankfully, Danny and Jillian were in a similar state as we sat down at café in the station to really get acquainted over coffee and medialunas, Argentina’s version of the croissant (think less butter, more sugar). While we’ve been traveling a very similar route at the same time, we still had lots to talk about since they were brave couchsurfers. If you’re not familiar with couchsurfing check out the link, but here’s a basic rundown. If you’re looking for a bed, couch, piece of floor or similar place to crash in a strange town, you hook up with hosts on the site and for free get to stay with a local. Some will act as tour guides as well. Very communal and I did look into it (you know I like free), but decided that it wasn’t for Adrian and I. It takes a lot of planning – you have to email or call the hosts a lot and know where you’re going to be and when. And frankly, Adrian and I don’t always have our sh*t together enough to know that stuff. But Danny and Jillian were super organized and had managed to couchsurf about half of the time on the road. They lots of neat stories about their experiences, enough that it made me want to finally get my sh*t together. They were couchsurfing once again in Mendoza so once we were finished our light breakfast we headed out to catch our cabs – them to their host’s and us to the hostel. Just before taking off, we made plans to plan a biking and wining tour together before heading off in opposite directions.
Our taxi ride was entertaining. As soon as he found out we were Canadian, he launched into a flowing tribute to Canada (I’m surprised with all the Canadian love in Argentina, particularly since it was a Canadian bank that sorta helped destroy the economy in 2001. Maybe the locals don’t know this and I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell them). His daughter was married to Canadian and his grandchildren were Canadian and he loved Canada. When he found out we were from Toronto, he ecstatically said that’s where his daughter and grandchildren lived. But he stopped himself from asking if we knew them. He was originally from Sicily and remarked that there were many Italians in Toronto. I told him there were a lot of Italians in Argentina too. “And now not so many left in Italy,” he said with a smile. When we got to the hostel, he dropped the price of the taxi. “You’re part of my Canadian family,” he said, “You don’t pay tourist prices.” The first time that has ever happened to us. Maybe this was karma’s way of evening out the whole border bus scam. We weren’t even money-wise but it was the nicest cab ride we’d had and the gesture was definitely appreciated.
We hoped our good luck would continue with the hostel. While we’d heard great things about one place, a little research revealed that without a reservation we could find ourselves sleeping in a hammock so we’d chosen another place that was new, a bit more expensive but located in the city centre and had wifi. Inside we were greeted first in Spanish until the girl behind the counter saw we were Canadian. She then switched to Californian. Molly was a super friendly American who’d been working here for the last few months and did her best to make us feel welcome. We even negotiated a bit of a discount for a three-night stay. The hostel was new-ish and full of amenities but it seemed to be empty and a bit more sterile after our time in Salta. But that wasn’t Molly’s fault; she certainly tried and the room was quite nice. We left her to jump in the shower and get rid of the bus slime and hopefully wake up a bit so we could explore the city.
The shower did the trick and we decided to head out and explore the city. We headed to the city museum. The route took us through the pretty tree-lined streets, the shade a necessity in the warm climate. Mendoza was pretty but like the hostel it lacked the charm of Salta. Despite being another old city, it was more spread out and didn’t have many remarkable buildings – it felt almost new. The museum was an exception. Set in a pretty park, it was a copy of an old colonial building. This was the location of the original main plaza which had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1861. Underneath the park was a cavern where one could visit the foundations of the old city but it was closed today so we settled for a visit to the free (my favourite) museum. I was right, the building wasn’t an original but like the park in front had been built over the original foundations which had been excavated inside. The museum was small but well done and gave a nice overview of the history of the city explaining how the earthquake had basically wiped out the entire city. Just outside across the park, one of the few colonial buildings half-stood. The original cathedral which had once stood on the main plaza was in ruins, held up by scaffolding. In the park, an engraving (photo above) showed what the city had looked like before the earthquake. Stupid mother nature and her stupid earthquakes. But people don’t come to Mendoza to see the city. They come to see the area around the city. Or more specifically, the wineries around the city.
Mendoza is the capital of Argentina’s wine industry and a major tourist draw. It was the reason we were here. For months and months I had refused to let Adrian order overpriced wine (just thinking of the budget and his liver), promising him as much as he could drink when we got to Chile and Argentina. So tomorrow was the day he been looking forward to forever. But tomorrow was still a day away. So we puttered around town taking in the ambiance. We stopped by the market to get some food. It was a lot like the St. Lawrence market in Toronto – not so much a fruit and veg stand but a place to get local gourmet treats. However, most of the stalls were either closed or a little beyond our price range. Although they did look tasty. We opted for the “gourmet” hot dogs instead. I can only hope that in this land of meat, that there was a little less mystery in these wieners and more meat.We’d run out of things to see so we headed back to the hostel, past all the fancy cafés and chichi hotels. Although Mendoza, the city wasn’t visually remarkable, there was a good vibe and I imagined it was one of those cities that would be great to live in even if it wasn’t the most beautiful one.
Back at the hostel, I tried to contact Jillian and Dan about the bike tour. But email isn’t the most effective way to make plans so I wasn’t optimistic that we’d actually connect, although I did keep my fingers crossed. Instead I told them that we were going to book through the hostel tour company and hoped that they’d be somewhere nearby. Adrian watched TV and I uploaded some more photos and attempted to catch up on the blog – now only 3 months behind. And that helped pass the time until dinner time, and by dinner time I mean Argentinean dinner time. You see, here dinner is something eaten at 9pm or later and most restaurants don’t even open until 8. So between 5 and 8 if you’re hungry, you’re also SOL. We’d eaten late and light in preparation for this though. Tonight we were going to indulge in a real Argentinean asado at a tenedor libre (that’s bbq at a “free fork” or all you can eat buffet). After weeks of soup, rice and chicken/fish and the last few days of hot dogs, we’d definitely earned it. The folks recommended a place within walking distance of the hostel that they said would be a good price for good food.
We arrived at Caro Pepe just after 8pm, and since we were the only ones there, I’m guessing they had just opened for dinner. The price was a lot more than our hot dogs (perhaps $12 each) but definitely much more appetizing. Since we hadn’t had much to eat we were ready to make the most of it. We skipped ordering wine and instead headed straight to the salad and veggie bar. I swear I’ve never been so excited to see spinach (first corn flakes and now spinach, oh the exciting life I lead). But I was one of the few to do so. The locals who were now trickling in, skipped this area or passed through to pick up some of that mystery sandwich meat before lining up at the asado counter. It’s amazing. Argentineans seem to eat nothing but meat and more meat, at these late hours, washing it down with cups of coffee and bottles of wine. Yet they look far healthier than any North American. It’s another of those great unsolved mysteries of the world that I wish Robert Stack would get to. But I digress. When we felt full of vitamin goodness, it was time to move on to the meat part of the show. Half of the buffet area was taken up by a large barbecue area where entire animals were being charred before our eyes. Now I’m not a big meat eater but I had to try some of the famous Argentinean beef. At the counter I ordered my small steak to which the chef ordered half a chicken and another pile of various meaty bits. He motioned to the bowls of chimichuri sauce to the side and I slathered on a couple of varieties. I’m sorry Ayngelina, but there are no pictures of this food. I was too selfish to remember my camera.
I got through about half of what the chef had piled on my plate when the meat sweats began. I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever experienced them and it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. Adrian seemed undeterred and went back another load while I felt my pants expanding in the seat. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to move for another hour. Eventually, the sweats subsided enough and I was able to get out of the chair. We settled up and rolled back to the hostel where we promptly passed out from our protein overdose. From this morning’s bus sweats to this evenings meat sweats, we’d come a (very) full uncomfortable circle.