Beyond the Backyard #5: Everything Your Monther Told You Not to Do – Mendoza and Santiago, Chile

Everything your mother told you not to do
As luck would have it, early in the week an old knee injury resurfaced with a vengeance, and the days that followed passed by in a blur of pain. Although even in my over-the-counter drug enhanced state, I still managed to get myself into enough adventures to turn my mother’s hair grey.

July 11: Aimless wanderings
About an hour out of Cordoba is this charming little German town called Villa General Belgrano, which was founded by German soldiers whose boat had been sunk off the coast of Uruguay during World War II (I think). It was there; I had to see it.

Rule #1: People love to lie about distances
I got directions to the youth hostel from the tourist information at the bus station. Supposedly it’s only three blocks away, more or less a ten minute walk. Ha. Three blocks until the small dirt path that took me to the turnoff that took me to the winding hill that took me to the hostel, all while carrying my backpack and balancing precariously on knees that didn’t work.

It was dusk, and there were few streetlamps on the roads. The hostel was cold and dimly lit. There were only two other guests. The owner was creepy. It didn’t take long for that gut feeling to kick in.

Three hours later, I was on a bus back to Cordoba, and then wandered on to Mendoza, a gorgeous city in the Andes.

July 12 (my birthday): Everything your mother told you not to do
This must be exactly what every parent warns their child about: talking to strangers, taking rides from strangers, taking food from strangers…

My knees were sore, so I had decided to give myself a birthday present and spend the day at some top notch thermal springs in a tiny hamlet not far from Mendoza. When the bus dropped me off at Cacheuta, I expected to see a glamourous hotel with glimmering blue thermal baths like the photos (and massages and free lunch). Jacob had given me directions, and the bus had stopped exactly where this hotel was supposed to be. The problem was that aside from a few empanada stands, there was nothing there. No hotel. Nothing.

So I turned to the elderly woman beside me and pleaded for help. Apparently there was a family gathering going on, because she passed me on to her daughter who she claimed knew English (she didn’t). The daughter then directed me to the hotel: follow the train tracks down the hill, across the river, to the stairs and go left. And of course, it wasn’t more than a ten minute walk.

Ha.

See Rule #1.

Ten minutes to get down the hill to the river, but the only way to get across the river was to walk on top of the train rails while wearing my backpack and balancing precariously on defective knees. Ten minutes to work up the courage to decide to try it, and another ten to do it. Ten minutes to walk to the stairs. Ten minutes to go down the fortysomething steps.

I go to the hotel sweaty, frustrated, and looking like I’d just trekked the Andes, and was promptly informed by the receptionist at the front desk that there’s a paved road leading directly from the highway, which is, of course, only a ten minute walk to the hotel.

I could have killed them all.

An elderly couple must have taken pity on me, because they invited me to visit another set of thermal baths with them and their 6-year-old granddaughter. I dumped my stuff in their car, and off we zoomed to another set of (not fancy) hot springs, which was coincidentally where the aforementioned family gathering was taking place.

This is what people must mean when they talk about Latin hospitality. I was temporarily adopted, fed at a traditional barbeque, invited on a ski trip, and then driven back to my hostel in Mendoza.

Catchin’ hypothermia
Rio Mendoza is about an hour and a half outside the city. It’s a mountain stream fed by the runoff from the Andes; in other words, all the water in the river had not long ago been snow sitting up atop the peaks.

So I went rafting in it.

The hostel surrendered a group of us to a small rafting company, who then provided us with all the equipment we needed: big blue rafts, paddles bigger than me, hard yellow helmets, neoprene socks and incredibly attractive wetsuits.

And we were off, hurling down the River Mendoza over rocks and through rapids, twirling in whirlpools until we almost fell off. But as much as those wetsuits kept us warm, they still let in a bit too much water (courtesy of the big holes in the bum). An hour and a half later, and I could barely move from the cold. So that’s why summer sports aren’t recommended in winter…

What’s a 10 per cent tip on 16,000 pesos?

The last stop of the week and the last leg of the first part of my solo trek was Santiago de Chile. The city is a charming blend of colonial and European architecture that by mid-afternoon is covered with a purple layer of smog so thick you can’t see more than two blocks in front of you. Apparently what happens is that air gets trapped in between the mountains and doesn’t circulate, so the smog just builds up until people start dropping like flies from lung disease or something if the typical heavy smoking doesn’t take its toll first.

Santiago in itself is confusing beyond belief. One Canadian dollar is worth about $430 Chilean pesos, which means that figuring out the cost of my dinner became a mathematical feat not attempted since high school math. To the locals, a $1000 peso bill is pocket money; to me, anything with that many zeroes must be inherently precious and valuable. That’s how three reasonably intelligent adults ended up leaving the most bizarre tip for a simple pasta meal.

Then there was the city map. The inept hostel staff had brilliantly given me a map in which the area that the hostel was situated in was conveniently about four inches to the left of where the map ended. Every three blocks, I’d pull out my map and try and figure out why the park on the left hand side had suddenly jumped to the right before I’d realize that I’d actually walked in a full circle without knowing it. Let’s just say I got lost almost as many times than I have fingers and toes. Or like the time I tried to look for one of the major museums and inadvertently walked past the entrance three different times because it was hidden in a courtyard and the only way to find it was to poke around this big pole near the side and hope it materialized. Looking for that museum was like being Harry Potter looking for platform 9¾ at the London train station: it’s here somewhere…if only I could find it…

That aside, the architecture is pretty, the country is very green (until about midday), and the people are friendly.

Home Sweet Home
The weekend found me back in Buenos Aires, needing to rest my knees from the two weeks of use and abuse.

But not before being caught in a snowstorm in the Andes, spending four hours at the top of the mountains at the Chilean border crossing on the way back to Mendoza (and enduring a total of 11 hours of “Let’s bug the Canadian by saying obnoxious English phrases and kicking her chair,” a clever game invented by the two 13-year-old boys sitting behind me on the bus), which then made me miss my flight to Buenos Aires, which conveniently happened to be the last flight of the day.

The plane ride, courtesy of an insanely overpriced Aerolineas Argentinas ticket, was the nightmare to Salta repeated. My boarding pass was issued without a second glance, the only time identification needed to be shown was to pay for part of the ticket with a credit card, and no one asked about my luggage (which had a steak knife, and sharp scissors and safety pins for the carry-on), which leads me to believe that safety must be a completely North American concept.

Whew…

Arriving in Buenos Aires felt like coming home.

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