Mendoza

The trip to Mendoza was not the normal bus ride.

Early in the morning, halfway into our 18-hour journey, my travel companion, Hayley, said she’d been experiencing a sharp pain in her stomach since 1 a.m. As time passed, the pain became more sharp and acute.

Hayley is a tough cookie and an even more experienced traveller than me. From the discomfort in her expression and the way she was squeezing the drapes between her fingers, I knew she was hurting badly. Though it was not the case, she said it felt like her appendix had burst. She said she needed to go to the hospital.

When she ventured downstairs to tell the bus driver, thanks to her limited Spanish comprehension, she thought he was refusing to stop. Returning to her seat, she curled up like an overcooked potato chip, writhing in pain. After I few minutes it was clear she wasn’t going to last another 7 hours in the bus. I went down to the bus driver, who was smoking a cigarette and scratching his crotch, expressing the severity of the situation. He cooly assured me he had already called an ambulance, which would be waiting for us in the next city, 20 km away.

This was a big relief, and I think Hayley was able to calm her nerves a bit. We pulled into a new-looking bus terminal outside of an unknown city. At first Hayley insisted that I go onto Mendoza by myself, but I assured her I would not be abandoning a friend, even one I had only met 5 days ago, to get to a hospital in the middle of nowhere, especially in the state she was in. There are always more buses.

I carried our things off the bus, fetching our packs from the underside. But there was no ambulance.

As Hayley did her best to describe her symptoms to thick-skulled Argentinean terminal officials, I was trying to figure out when the ambulance would arrive. They assured us it was coming but couldn’t say when. Our driver seemed to be saying that the doctors were coming to the station and that the bus would wait around at least until they showed up.

We waited on a bench for half an hour, anxious bus passengers occasionally staring at us through the windows, clearly frustrated by the seemingly dramatic gringos. Maybe they were jealous that I could buy a coffee and stretch my legs while they remained cooped up in a bus. Hayley said she was feeling slightly better, but still feared whatever demon was living inside her guts.

The ambulance finally showed up and two medics took her inside, shutting the door. They were in their own private examination room for 15 minutes. Making light of the situation, and assuming Hayley and I were a couple, the driver gave me a smirk and made the suggestion with his hand that she was pregnant. I assured him this was not possible, but knew he was mostly teasing.

When the door finally opened, Hayley looked utterly spent, but relaxed like a wilted flower. She was going to get back on the bus.

It had been something of a struggle to communicate with the medics in Spanish, and she had no idea what their prognosis was. Whatever they decided it was, they had rolled her on her belly and given her a large shot in her fanny, also writing her a prescription for some pink pills. The shot gave her some semi-immediate relief and, though still in pain, she managed to climb back on the bus. She slept most of the way there.

If you were to have people describe their first impression of Mendoza, the buzz word would be beautiful.

I’m not easily charmed by cities, but this place is as charming as it gets. The air is fresh, trees are everywhere, the streets sidewalks aren’t crowded, and the buildings aren’t tall. I couldn’t get over how the whole city smells like flowers.

We got into town in the early evening, and Hayley said she felt good enough to try walking to the hostel – we are way too cheap to pay for a taxi. En route, we got a good survey of the town and its many plazas. We were so excited to explore it some more. Then came the bad news.

Without knowing it, we had come to Mendoza on a national holiday weekend for Chile. Only 6 or 8 hours from Santiago, Mendoza is a popular destination. The first hostel was fully booked up, as was the second, and the third. After our fourth rejection, we were sick and tired of pointlessly hauling our bags around, Hayley still weak. We asked the reception to call all the hostels listed in our book to check for space. There was nowhere for us to stay.

The hostel recommended a tourist agency around the corner that could help us out. When we got there we were greeted by two of the happiest Argentinean rafting guides ever, who told us about their hostel. It was 25 minutes outside of town, but they would take us there for free.With no other options at our disposal, and given we were already going outside of the city to explore wine country tomorrow, we said yes.

We asked Oso, our ride, if we could wander town for an hour or two before leaving and he said that would be fine. On top of hitting a grocery store and the pharmacy, we got to check out the actually impressive artisan market and see the beautiful city at night.

Oso (a nickname, Spanish for Bear) was fun to ride with, and I often wonder if people like him are the ones who really have it all figured out. 

As a professional rafting guide, he has travelled all over the world, working in North America and Europe for the northern summer, and in South America and Australia for the southern summer. He makes a living doing what he loves. He said his only real responsibility is making sure everyone around him is having a good time. 

The hostel was nice, despite (or because of) being in the middle of nowhere. We were invited to join in a hostel-wide barbecue, but as vegetarians, 20 pounds of grilled meat isn’t really our thing and we had already bought groceries.

I met a Danish guy, Jesper, who also floats around the world as a rafting guide. We had a good time talking about the old country and making each other homesick.

Hayley went to bed after dinner, having had one very long day. I tried to stay up but after hanging out at the barbecue for a little while sleep caught up with me too.

In the morning we ate breakfast and before having to figure out how to get to the nearby town for Maipu to for our planned biking and wine tour, two girls from the hostel said they had overheard our idea and already talked to someone from the hostel who could give us a ride.

Alisa (Netherlands) and Eva (Germany) were sweet girls and we decided to group together for the day. While our ride was free, we had to wait around for the guy to show up, and later struggle to find the place, as he didn’t know where it was.

We finally found the bike shop, called Mr. Hugo’s, and met the grinning, slightly ego-centric Mr. Hugo himself. The bike rental was cheaper than we expected, as was the quality of the bikes.

I went through three different bikes over the course of several hours: trading the first one in because the gearing didn’t work, later getting a flat and having to call the company to bring me a new one. They have a man on call to make such transfers  and show no surprise when things go wrong, so I think they are very used to their shitty bikes falling apart.

Bike problems aside, we had a great time. Combining two things I love – bikes and wine – how could it be bad?

My flat happened before we got anywhere, but it conveniently occurred in front of a cafe-restaurant where we could get an espresso while we waited for my new bike. Later we were told that it’s bad to drink coffee prior to tasting wine, but it was a damn good espresso.

With a small paper map of the many local vineyards, we first headed down the main road to a winery recommended for doing good tastings. In a large group, we sat down in a barn-type space, as a knowledgable female connoisseur instructed us on proper tasting protocol, describing each wine in detail. We started with a Torrontes, then a selection of reds, and finally a sweet dessert wine. It was a lot of fun and rather amusing to see the crowd get more and more unruly with every drink we were served.

We moved onto our next winery to find it closed. We popped into the one just down the street where we were served some heavy-handed glasses of really good Malbecs and Sauvignon Blancs. Unlike the jovenes we were often served up north, were were tapping into some serious vintages, including a smooth 2004 and a 2006.

We were feeling quite the buzz by this point, which made the riding all the more fun. 

With our late start we only had so much time before all the vineyards shut down for the day. Many were not open at all, but, much to my excitement, the local microbrewery was. While this was supposed to be a wine tour, I love beer as much or more, and so did my company. Along with some good pale ales, we got some amazing vegetarian empanadas as part of a combo deal. It was a good day.

We spent a good amount of time at the brewery and had to return the bikes to Mr. Hugo’s by the time we’d finished. Mr. Hugo greeted us with lemonade, probably a tactic to make us forget the deplorable quality of the bikes.

While I had expected to drink more wine than we did, it was a very satisfying day for all my gustatory pleasures: coffee, wine, beer, with fried dough and cheese for dessert. There was nothing to complain about.

Having had the foresight to book beds in town before we left yesterday, Hayley and I caught a bus back to Mendoza. 

We were in a mellow mood, as usual, but wanted to walk around town and get some drinks. Hayley wanted to go to the bus station to book tickets out, and though I didn’t think it was necessary, it was a good thing we did.

While she had no problem finding a ticket to Buenos Aires for the next night, I was shit out of luck for finding one to Santiago. With the Chileans going home from their long weekend, paired with the fact that the road had been closed for the day because of snow, there was not a single seat to Santiago until Monday morning. As annoying as it was to be stopped once again, I had no major problems with staying another night in this lovely city. With Chile’s capitol a mere seven hours away I would still get there by the early afternoon.

After running our errand, we walked across town with the eventual destination of the bar district. Along the way we stopped back at the main square to peep on all the action and see a few minutes of a concert going on.

If you want to see Mendoza at its best, see it at night. In contrast and as a result of the pervasive siesta culture, the whole town comes alive when the sun goes down. Unlike many towns I know where “nightlife” means young people getting out of control drunk, Mendoza nightlife is for everyone – from families with young children playing in the park to elderly couples drinking wine in cafes well past midnight. It is so refreshing, and maybe if we had taken our own siestas we would have felt more up to joining the nocturnal masses.

As it was we still enjoyed the town, finding a relaxed place with outdoor seating to order drinks and more empanadas. Mendoza may be light in the attraction department but this is the kind of city I would want to live in. Such good vibes and just the right speed.

Our last day was similarly mellow but that’s how they do it here. 

Especially on Siesta Sunday, there are not many things to do in Mendoza. Both being big fans of coffee, we scarfed down the standard hostel breakfast of bread and jam, then heading out to find a cafe. We got some reading/writing time in at the main plaza and did some more wandering of the city.

We made several stops for groceries for lunch and bus rides. When we got back to the hostel we realized the stove didn’t work, making it rather difficult to do anything with the half-dozen eggs we bought. In true backpacker fashion, we used an electric water heater to attempt hard-boiling them. It worked, sort of. About half of our eggs cracked and made a real mess of the water heater, but it was the best we could do with the tools provided.

We chilled out some more, Hayley reading and travel-planning, me making some serious progress in the endless fight to keep up with this blog (it’s a lot of work for the record).

With her bus leaving in a couple hours, Hayley packed up and we went seeking a vegetarian restaurant for a farewell dinner. 

Unfortunately both restaurants we knew of were closed (Siesta Sunday), so we settled for a decent chain restaurant we had walked past. The food was good (I got a pricy but amazing quesadilla) and we had a lovely conversation on the reasons why we travel. Hayley is a special person – a restless world traveller I can really respect and learn from. Especially when you meet someone cool and travel with them for a week, the goodbye is just a bit more strange.

As compatible of travel companions as we are, I think we were both looking forward to some time alone. When you know you are inevitably going to part ways, the travel friendship is stunted for going anywhere. As solo backpackers, we are also some of the most selfish people out there, and it is surprisingly difficult to find solitude. More than most people I meet, I was grateful for our paths crossing, but I think we both knew it was time.

After walking her to the bus terminal, I had a fun walk back to the hostel. 

Knowing as soon as I got there I wouldn’t see Mendoza again, I took my time, taking a zig-zag route through streets and areas I had yet to see. Because the city is so well let at night, I experimented with a lot of picture taking, some of which came out okay. I was in a great mood, having time to myself for the first time in over a week. 

I got back with time to Skype mom and dad for the first time in a while, then doing the same with baby sister. I needed that. I socialized with the pair of dorky Swedes I was sharing my room with, and went to bed in time to watch Walking Dead and get some sleep before my early morning ride back to Chile.



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