06.03.2006 - 16.03.2006
Fall was starting in Patagonia, so we figured we'd better get down there before it got too cold. It was a long way in a big country, so flying seemed like the best option. We were lucky to get seats, as it seemed like a lot of Portenos, (people from Buenos Aires), were having their last fling before school started. Bariloche has both a summer and winter season, as other mountain towns do in the states. If we had any doubts that we were in a more "first world" place, they were dispelled with a vengeance upon our arrival . The main streets were packed with people, shopping and eating in upscale shops, foreigners and in country tourists alike. Situated on Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche is like a cross between Lake Placid and Burlington Vermont, but with mountains more like the Alps.
It was a bit too hectic for my taste when we first arrived, but the crowds thinned out as the week went on. The architecture is a mix of relatively new, modern looking structures with glass and wood, Swiss chalet type municipal buildings, low rise concrete and wood houses on the side streets,
and the Hobbit-like "Trunco" wooden style, one of which was our favorite romantic restaurant.
Though not on the same scale as New Orleans, we happened to be there for Mardi Gras.
Initially we arranged to stay at a small Spanish school, run by a couple just outside of town. When we got there, it was either a tiny room in the small house, or a more private and larger space in the garage. We opted for the latter, but after a few days it got quite cold at night and there was no heat. When we were awakened in the night by rain dripping through the leaking roof, we decided to move. The teaching itself was not bad, but the couple running the place seemed preoccupied and not especially friendly. After considerable leg work, we found a room right in town, at the reasonably priced B and B, Hostel Guemes. This was a much more acceptable arrangement as we could walk everywhere and had our pick of restaurants, bakeries, and chocolate shops. Our hosts were an interesting couple, older than us by at least 15 years. Jorge was an ex-fishing guide and described a number of different places to explore around town and further afield as well. I understood about half of what he said, but no matter, they were both, muy amable. Luckily we were able to continue our Spanish studies because one of the teachers lived nearby, and was more than happy to meet us in a cafe to continue our lessons. It would take me time to get used to the Argentine, Italian sounding accent.
We spent more than two weeks here and returned to Guemes on two other occasions. Typically, We had lessons for a few hours in the morning, and then took off for a hike, or if we felt less ambitious, a long walk around town or along the lake. The surrounding countryside was magnificent, most of it part of the oldest national park in Argentina, and full of hiking, climbing, and during their winter, skiing possibilities.
On one of our hikes we took the teleferico to the summit of Cerro Otto, on the outskirts of town. From there we walked on cross-country skiing trails through the magical woods full of wild flowers.
The views of the lake and the distant mountains were outstanding.
We returned here more than once, and stopped by the small winter lodge to have a cup of tea, the only customers at this time of year. It should have been mate, what amounts to the national beverage, but it was camomile. The owner, a cross country ski instructor from the Ukraine, seemed glad for the company.
Somewhat further afield, 25K or so, we took the bus to Llao Llao, Argentina's most famous hotel. Home to Bill Clinton, The Rolling Stones, and other celebrities, it seems to deserve its reputation. I can't say for sure since they didn't let us in, but once we did manage to sneak onto the grounds.
I didn't get a good picture of the hotel, but if you google it, after you finish reading the blog of course, there are some good file shots. We returned a 2nd time and couldn't get near the place. Security was extremely tight and we wondered why. We were told by a nearby middle age Israeli couple, that the owner was having a Passover Seder for 2500 people, which was free to the under 25 set. They were pissed because they couldn't get in without forking out a few hundred bucks a piece. Bariloche has a significant Israeli population, including their own hostels and internet cafes with Hebrew letters on the keyboards. Hence it is a magnet for young Israeli backpackers.
Not far from LLao LLao, on the Circuito Chico, are other nice walks and views of the lakes.
Cerro Catedral, the major downhill ski area about 15K out of town, also makes for some very good hiking. We didn't quite get to the top, but I guess at my age I don't need to make excuses.
Samantha, or Sam as we called her, in her early 20's, was an excellent teacher. Not only did we learn Spanish, but we had discussions about her life, friends, and politics. She was an admirer of Evita Peron, as so many people are down here. Evita is a complex figure. While speaking up for the poor and working class, she was anything but democratic in how she doled out money. and ruthless if anyone challenged her decisions.
A text book that Sam used with us, intermediate level, had some short stories and dialogues about life in Argentina. One of them was about a ladrone, or thief, who stole some money from an old lady while she was out walking. He was eventually apprehended and brought before a judge, who at first, demanded to know how he could have done such a thing. The thief, ignoring this comment, and apparently recognizing the judge, said something to him about the fact that they knew each other. The judge responded by saying, "Yes, now that you mention it, that's right. I thought you looked familiar. Did you go to X school in Cordoba?" The thief nodded. "Why didn't you say so right away. Of course, you were in a class with...." There was more dialogue about the school and possible mutual acquaintances. The story ended when the judge said that because they knew each other, he was going to release him, and he then did so without so much as a warning.
I was somewhat aghast about this ending and I questioned Sam about it, wondering if I had missed something. No I had not. "In Argentina," she said, "people help their friends all the time, and if you know someone it makes all the difference."
"But, this was a bad guy who had robbed an old lady. Surely he didn't deserve to be released just because they had been in the same school?" Sam didn't seem to think this was anything out of the ordinary, and was not surprised by it.
So things were not exactly as they appeared to be in this complicated country. And yes, there is corruption everywhere including the USA, but I don't think we would put it in a text book of American English. We wouldn't openly condone it and define it as the norm. Are the Argentinian's simply less hypocritical? Perhaps, but.....