Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Costumbres Argentina

A couple of weeks ago, Juan, the guy I couchsurfed with in Mendoza, Argentina, made good on his promise to come to London, and I was finally able to pay him back for the wonderful time that I had at his place. His visit reminded me of why I love the couchsurfing system. It's not just a free place to stay (although saving money definitely did allow me to travel longer), it is through which you make a network of friends from all over the world. And, unlike a hostel where you check in and check out and forget about it all, with couchsurfing you are really invested in the people- they have shown you their life, their culture and unbounded generosity, and there is nothing you want more but to pay them back. And you know what? Being a tourist in your own city is fun! Whilst Juan was here, we went on a free walking tour of London (it was embarrassing how little I knew about my own city!) and pretty much every tourist attraction (I myself had done so few!) Settled back now in the UK with a place in London, I anticipate the next few years to be full of the wonderful people I met visiting me in return, and hopefully many more friends to be made. (That is until my flatmates get sick of all the visitors. We'll see how long it can go ;) )

Exploring London
But back to a bright autumn day in June, in Argentina. I was traveling by bus to Mendoza from Santiago, which involved a beautiful route across the Andes and down into the wine growing region of Argentina. Juan met me at the bus station and we walked to his house upon which I was almost immediately told that I had to try MATE! Mate is a traditional hot drink in Argentina, an infusion of herbs put into a special cup, upon which hot water is poured and you take turns drinking it up through a straw. It sounds mental, and it was, but the Argentinians are crazy for it. It's like the English obsession with tea (incidentally, I had my revenge on Juan by immediately making him a proper cup of tea when he arrived in London.) They drink mate all day, everywhere, even each having a special mate bag and thermos flask so they can take it to the park and drink in the sunshine. Juan explained that it's special as it is like the antidote to TV. TV closes people up, everybody slowly stops talking and stares dumbly at the screen. Mate opens people up. The process of pouring, and drinking, re-pouring and passing the cup to the next person invites an atmosphere of conversation and friendship. It really was nice, and reminded me again of an English tea time. I can't count the number of times in my house in Durham we'd be holed up in our rooms trying to revise and you'd hear someone put the kettle on.....  And within 5 minutes we were all sitting round the kitchen table drinking a cup of tea and taking 10 minutes to talk and relax.

Drinking mate in the park
Mate bag and set
Another thing I was to learn very quickly about Argentina was the crazy schedule that they seem to be able to function on. By about 8pm my tummy was beginning to growl and I suggested we go in search of some food. Juan looks at my strangely and says yeah, we're going out soon. 'Soon' turned out to be a couple of hours later, and we settled into a heaving restaurant at 11pm to order dinner, apparently a perfectly normal and acceptable time to eat. (Most restaurants don't even open until 9.30pm) So we eat, and head out to a bar, staying until about 2am at which time I assumed we'd head home. "Home? Why would we go home? The night has just begun!" Thus followed another bar before going to a club at 3am "It should be just about getting going now...." and partying until 6 or 7 in the morning. Then falling asleep until 2 in the afternoon and repeating the process over and over. My body was thoroughly confused by all of this, but I loved every minute, partying with a gang of crazy Argentinean students excited to show me their city and their way of life.

A final, very important thing that I learnt about Argentina was how much they loved their meat. Our first day in Mendoza, Juan burbled on excitedly about a huge barbecue his friend is going have at the weekend and the amazing steak and ribs they were going to cook. Abashed, I confess to vegetarianism which by his reaction and appalled "WHAAAAT??" might as well have been a confession to baby-eating. Determined to prove to him that vegetarian food can actually be tasty, and that I'm not some kind of masochist by not eating meat, I cook for him and his friends my famous Veggie Lasagna that has now been cooked all over the world. Imagine the scene, 8 hungry meat- loving Argentinian guys, just back from playing in a football match..... loving my lasagna! Win! Test passed.

The lasagna test
Following Mendoza I headed south and south some more. Bariloche, my first glimpse of the awe-inspiring Patagonia region of southern Argentina and Chile, and a place that I have now made it my mission to go back and explore. Running out of time, and running out of season (winter was rapidly approaching and Patagonia is best explored in the summer) I was able to only spend a few days in Bariloche, but it was definitely enough to convince me to come back- bright blue lakes and endless mountains. I met a lovely Dutch girl on the bus down from Mendoza and we found a hostel for the first night, before I couchsurfed for the other couple of nights with a really great couple, a Buenos Aires girl and her American husband. My days there were spent hiking and exploring the city with my friends from the hostel, and cooking, chatting and drinking mate in the evening with my hosts. A perfect combination.

Beautiful Bariloche
I then headed back onto another crazy 24 hour bus ride where we were presented with unappetising meals, but happily, also, BINGO! (a fantastic distraction from the ride and a great way to practice spanish numbers! ;) Unfortunately even when the number of people on the bus dropped to 4, I still did not win the bottle of wine.....)
and we landed into BUENOS AIRES!
The city of tango, the Pope, Evita and very crazy nightlife. Thus follows couchsurfing with a guy who did not seem to care that I kept repeating that I had a boyfriend (I left the next day), a night in a terrible hostel (nobody really wants to hang out with a group of Chinese people who talk only in chinese to each other) before finally making it to Buenos Aires's 'party hostel'! (I swallowed all my reservations of avoiding the party hostels for fear of too many preppy 'gap yah-ers', and was so pleased I did!) This hostel was just the best way to meet people and I made some really great friends there. We had some crazy nights out in  Buenos Aires, and went to an incredible tango show where as well as the show we got a tango lesson, and a 3 course meal with unlimited beer or wine. I liked the vibe of Buenos Aires, it was was somehow different to the other cities in South America, and the many different zones and neghbourhoods gave it alot of character. Not to mention the crazy cemetery in Recoleta- a literal stone city for the dead.

Free wine!
Tango Show

Recoleta Cemetery

I felt smug in quickly becoming the spanish translator of the group, and had alot of fun negotiating money on the black market for everyone. Because yes, if you want to survive for long in Argentina, you need to come with a fistfull of dollars and go to the streets on Buenos Aires to change for a much better rate than the banks or ATMs would give up. I felt like some kind of mob star....

With a very fun Irish couple in tow, I set out for my final bus ride in South America to the Iguazu Falls. This began like most of the other bus trips, except with a thunderstorm in the night and I woke up to rain dripping onto my face and my bag soaked on the sopping wet floor. Classic.

The Iguazu Falls were spectacular, although the whole site wasn't open due to very heavy rain in the last few days (oh rain? I hadn't noticed...) Luckily the day we went was beautiful sunshine and me and my Irish friends spent a day looking around the Argentinan side, before saying goodbye and I made my way over the border into Brazil in preparation for my fight to Rio the next day.
The end of the Argentinian chapter, and the start of the final chapter.

Iguazu Falls