Andrew M.H. Alexander

Mendoza, Argentina
20-21 September 2008

For my last two days in Chile I decided to go to Argentina.

The pass between the Andes is supposed to be spectacular and best done during the day, but being short on time, I decided to take a night bus on Friday and then return during the day on Sunday, when everything in South America is closed anyway. On Friday I took in the continued festivities for the Chilean independence celebrations during the day, and then hopped on a $20,000 peso (USD$40) Tur-Bus at 10:30 PM. Quite to my luck the seat next to me was vacant, although the buses are so spacious to begin with that it hardly mattered. I watched the onboard entertainment for a bit, and fell asleep around midnight. At 1:15 we arrived at the border; the immigration officers were wearing parkas and I had a t-shirt on. It became apparent how empty the bus was: only eighteen people on a bus that seats up to 44. No one else was there, so we passed swiftly through and I went back to sleep.

But I only got another two hours of sleep, since the bus pulled into Estacion de Buses Mendoza at 4:20 AM Chilean time (5:20 Argentina). The bus station was surprisingly busy–by this I mean that there were other people there who had not just gotten off my bus—there was music coming from some bars outside and I guess people were headed home. It was so busy that it took a good ten minutes to find a private enough place to pee outside. Then I went back into the bus station, sat down on a hard plastic chair, and slept leaning forward onto my backpack until 7 AM. When I woke up there were even more people in the bus station, and the stores and stalls had opened up. I withdrew money from an ATM that asked me whether I wanted pesos or dollars. Then I went to a coffee shop, ordered tea, and sat semi-catatonic for two hours until the waitress finally brought me the check.

Then I set out for Mendoza proper. I had nothing to guide me but a low-quality printout of Lonely Planet Argentina’s Mendoza chapter. The bus station was in the part of the map, the far lower-right, where they stop labeling streets and erase whole blocks by building information boxes and legends over them. It was foggy out and I could see neither the sun nor the mountains, so it was probably sheer luck that the direction I ended up walking in was only 45º off from the heading that would have taken me downtown. I wandered around a quiet residential neighborhood with one-story houses that butt up against each other, tiny markets on the corners selling vegetables in boxes, concrete ditches between the street and the sidewalk. Sidewalk in this case simply means the concrete that touches the houses on one side and the streets on the other; there were trees but no lush vegetation and it all kind of blended together into a gray concrete and stucco ruin. Mendoza is surrounded by desert far more than Santiago is. It’s not quite Patagonia yet—but it’s damn arid. The cars parked on the street were all ancient. Older than anything in Chile, yet apparently still in working condition. A guy who looked about my age asked me to help him push his car to a rolling start; after a block of pushing, he hopped in and put it into gear. Two horse-drawn carts passed. Another guy was biking down the street with several boxes of bread balanced in front of his handlebars; he was alternating between honking his horn and shouting “Tortitas!”

I was still trying to get downtown—and I was still exhausted and desperately in need of food—but my wandering appeared to be taking me no closer. Several times I passed a street that shared a name with a street Lonely Planet said was in the heart of downtown, but a mile of walking in either direction only produced a couple of hostels and a rusty playground. So I walked back to the bus station, tried again, and quickly found myself on a poplar-lined boulevard. I walked to a plaza, sat down and ate two granola bars, and then kept walking in search of a Middle Eastern restaurant Lonely Planet suggested. (I felt bad for not going for something “Argentinian,” but after three months of straight South American food, I also wanted something where meat wasn’t the only ingredient.) I ordered a shwarma, which came with absolutely delicious sauces (one of which was, of course, mayonnaise. My roommate Daniel commented a few weeks ago: “I like how in the US, mayonnaise is necessary evil, but in the rest of the world, it’s a necessity.”) There was a hookah on one of the tables and the waiter, though very much Argentinian, was dressed in what I suppose was supposed to be a Middle Eastern costume: baggy pants, baggy shirt, bandanna. I ordered baklava for desert. The entire time I was there, I was the only person in the restaurant.

After I left the restaurant I walked around some more. I tried to find a hostel recommended by Lonely Planet on one side of town; it was closed, so I went to another on the other side of town. I checked in, still feeling completely drained from my lack of sleep, and lay on the bed staring at the ceiling for a half-hour. Then I got up, went out, bought myself a bottle of Talca Cola, and began to seriously explore Mendoza. I guess the caffeine did it, because as soon as I drank it, I felt fantastic. (Where the name “Talca Cola” comes from I have no idea—I thought Talca was a city in southern Chile. There seems to be no trade in regional sodas in South America—Inka Kola, Bilz and Talca Cola are endemic in each of their respective countries but extinct outside of them.)

And Mendoza is awesome! Really, my primary motivation in going there was to get my passport stamped, but I definitely got more than that. (I may just have come at a good time, since most of my exploring was on a Saturday afternoon/night, but hey.) The city is arranged with plazas like the five-roll of a die; in the middle is a huge central plaza surrounded by four smaller plazas each two blocks away. Mendoza draws a lot of tourists as the stepping-off point to Argentina’s central Andes and as such there is no shortage of touristy gift shops selling three products: ponchos, mate, and knives. The obsession with knives I wasn’t prepared for, but every gift shop seems to have a wide selection of them: big, scary knives, with accompanying sheaths. Some of them are double-bladed and have hilts that make them look more like daggers. The mate collection, too, is nice, since mate isn’t very widely drunken (drank? drinked?) in Chile. I bought some mate gourds and straws as presents, and also bought myself a nice silver mate goblet with a built-in straw for myself—very regal looking, and I figure it will complement my poncho quite well. One of my frustrations over the past year has been the utter lack of variety in my wardrobe: all I have is earth tones, flannel, fleece, and cargo pants. Now I will have at least one outfit for a costume party: the alpaca herder/Inca king.

On the street I bought churros (a type of deep-fried dough, sprinkled with sugar and filled with manjar (caramel)) from a father-son team who seemed very appreciative of my purchase. An hour later I stumbled across a heladeria—sorry for the Spanish again, but I love how they can say “ice cream shop” as one word: “icecreamery,” like “estadounidense” for “united statesian”—this heladeria that was advertising a churros-plus-hot-chocolate special. So I ordered it and sat in the café and watched a guy in a Barney suit stand on the corner waving at passers-by and handing them balloon animals. (Barney, if you don’t know, is a purple anthropomorphic tyrannosaurus who was the star of the 1990s children’s television show “Barney and Friends.” The show, with its theme song “I love you/you love me/we’re a happy family…” instantly became an object of ridicule among its target audience. This was probably for the better, since Barney’s upright pose was misleading; paleontologists are in widespread agreement that t-rex balanced horizontally. Anyway, Mendoza is now the fourth South American city in which I have seen Barneys selling balloon animals. Truly bizarre. There were also Hare Krishnas in Mendoza—a half-dozen of them, sitting beneath a tree in a plaza and chanting. The Barneys and the Hare Krishnas always seem to appear at the same time, which to me suggests not a connection between the two but rather that the universe is fiddling with the surreal-o-meter.

I went to the central plaza, Plaza Independencia, and visited a modern art museum beneath it. The clerk seemed upset that I didn’t have exact change for the AR$3 student entrance fee, and when she opened up the cash drawer, it turned out that she didn’t have any change at all. There was no money in the drawer and, judging by her tone of voice, this wad my fault. So I paid the AR$4 general admission fee instead, and when I walked into the gallery she was still muttering about “no tengo monedas.” One of the exhibits was quite boring but the other two weren’t bad. Out on the plaza there were twenty or thirty stalls set up as an artisan’s market; two of the other plazas had the same thing. Again there were more knives, ponchos, and mate gourds. A huge crowd had gathered around one of the stalls, at which a lady was selling kaleidoscopes hand-painted and homemade out of bamboo. An even larger crowd had gathered in front of a fountain to watch a six-year-old girl dance to amplified music; she was, I thought, quite good. The sun was getting low in the sky and it hit the fountain at just the right angle to create a rainbow right in front of me. Someone asked me to take a photograph of them in front of the fountain.

I went to go look for dinner. I walked up the grassy, landscaped median of one of the main streets, which had been landscaped with poplar trees and more craft stalls. The street started at the plaza, and at the start of the median was a six-foot-high iron menorah with the words “PASEO ESTADO DE ISRAEL” in both Spanish and (I assume) Hebrew. No less than three plaques described how the median had been so named in honor of Mendoza’s Jewish community and the 50th anniversary of the founding of Israel. I thought Argentina was the land of Nazis, not Jews. But I guess there was that synagogue bombing in Buenos Aires in 1994, and my map shows an Israeli consulate somewhere in Mendoza, but still, I had no idea that there was a Jewish community of any size in this hemisphere anywhere south of San Diego. Very strange.

I passed a book fair, apparently an annual feature of Mendoza Septembers in the Greek revival cultural center. Inside the publishers were passing out free bookmarks. The presence of books was a welcome change from Chile, which has almost no domestic publishing industry and consequently not much reading material. The street kiosks in Chile sell just candy and soda, but the kiosks in Argentina sell newspapers and magazines—easily over a hundred titles at each kiosk. The Spanish edition of this month’s Rolling Stone has Barack Obama on the cover. There was also no shortage of Spanish versions of National Geographic and Runner’s World.

I eventually made my way to the Mercado Central, which had a nice mix of restaurants and butchers. At one table a family was eating a parrillada (the Argentinean mixed grill served on a charcoal brazier). The father was leaning back in his chair and playing a guitar. I ordered a lomo (steak) sandwich for dinner, which was absolutely enormous and came with a disproportionately small soda and bag of fries. On the walk back to the hostel I decided to pass through the one plaza I had not yet visited, Plaza Chile, and found that it was even livelier than the rest of the city. In addition to a ring of artisans’ stalls around the outside of the plaza, the center was taken up by a dozen stands selling food from different parts of Chile. Apparently this was some sort of festival sponsored by the Chilean consulate in honor of Chile’s independence celebrations. The stands were all labeled by city, though there was no “SANTIAGO” stand. I guess it would have just consisted of people selling chocolate-covered marshmellows. There were fire pits surrounded by pig fillets roasting on stakes. A guy in stilts was walking around handing out advertisements for Western Union money transfers. There was also a large outdoor stage on which a band was doing a sound check; I guess there was going to be Chilean music later, though I didn’t stick around. It wasn’t the only public concert of the night: the next morning the Mendoza newspaper (“Los Andes”) had an article about a free concert of local bands that had taken place in a nearby park, attracting several hundred Mendocino teenagers. (The newspaper was also awash in ads for a Madonna concert in Buenos Aires; in Santiago, her upcoming South American tour has been the talk of the town. Maybe in a few years they’ll be able to get Michael Jackson.)

In the morning I woke up and went back to the bus station for the ride back to Santiago. It was stunningly beautiful—desert mountains, and a long traverse up a river valley into the Andes. At the bottom of the valley the river terminated in a lake that was a deep turquoise blue. There were rafters on the river—the Rio Mendoza is apparently a popular destination—and an abandoned narrow-gauge railway line running parallel to the road. The iron-truss railway bridges reminded me of Ithaca, somewhat. Further up the mountains there was snow, lots of it, and the railway was covered—sort of like a long, narrow barn on top of the tracks to keep off the snow. Large portions of the structure had collapsed.

We arrived at the border at 4:15 behind a long line of trucks, cars, and buses, all moving as fast as the glaciers on either side of the customs post. Luckily there was no shortage of onboard entertainment, since the TVs on the bus were showing episodes of three different American television programs subtitled in Spanish: MTV’s Pimp My Ride, a reality show about the production of a Cirque de Soleil show, and a sitcom, apparently from the early 90s, about a 20something from Flushing, Queens, who accidentally gets a job as a nanny to an Upper East Side family. The campiness of the sitcom I slowly came to find endearing, and the Cirque de Soleil stuff was fascinating—it made me want to see one of their shows. So I sat back and watched TV for four hours, as did everyone else, and I chewed on charqui (llama jerky) I had bought a couple days before in Santiago. Outside people were climbing up the snow fields while waiting for their turn to cross the border. The Chilean immigration officer who stamped my passport spent several seconds staring at my Iranian visa—becoming the first immigration officer I’ve dealt with to notice it. We finally started down the Chilean side of the Andes at 8:30, some four hours after arriving at the border. It was completely dark, so there was no view of the pass on the way down. Pity, since I later saw photos of the Chilean switchback descent on a website titled “The World’s Most Dangerous Roads!” We pulled into the terminal in Santiago at 10:15 and I got on the Metro just minutes before it closed.