Monday, November 14, 2005

Going west to Shady Mendoza


After getting crazy of doing nothing in Cordoba, I managed to pick up my package and to catch the night bus to Mendoza. Shady Mendoza kept me busy for some time while I was looking for trekking partners to the Aconcagua National Park.

About Argentinean bureaucracy
So, after waiting so much time, Monday bloody Monday has arrived (on the U2 theme, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” song) and I woke up early to be on the spot first thing first. I came to the post office and found out happily that indeed, the package branch was open for business. Great! I went inside, took a number and waited patiently till my turn came. When it did, I approached the middle aged clerk, which from the start didn’t look too symphatic. I told him that I want to send a package and receive one from Israel. I handed him the number of the package and after a minute he told me that the package is not in the post office. WHAT??
Now, you have to understand that I have checked the location of the package over the internet, and it already registered on Argentinean soil from the 1st of November.
So, what’s happening here? I tried to ask the guy but with my shameful Spanish he didn’t understand what the hell I want from him and what is to understand here. There are more than your package in the airport, mister, so you should have to wait patiently he replied finally. You have to get a form notifying of a package delivered here, he added pointing to a pile of forms waiting on his desk. Of course, like in Israel, what the hell I was thinking for myself??
So, frustrated, I just handed my package that I wanted to send and get it inspected. I filled the form of the custom about the different contents that were there and then I got my package wrap. Well, after shipping the package, I had nothing to do but to go the internet point, of course…Later I met with Aviran and Moran, both came to play on the machines and already checked-out of the hostel as they had their bus to Mendoza around 10:30 PM. I managed to pass the day somehow, not knowing what else to do and around 10 PM I said goodbye to the guys, telling them that we might meet again in Mendoza.
The next day, Tuesday, I woke up early and on my way out I asked the hostel staff, out of curiosity, if there is some mail from me. He looked around and said that he don’t find anything posted for me. I was about to leave, when another staff member came in and the guy asked him also if there is some mail for me, and the later guy replied with a yes, and popped a form similar to the one I saw the last day. HURRAY!! I was so happy, that I took it and went outside to grab a taxi to the post office. Time was around 8 am, when the post office just opens, so I won’t have too much people waiting and I could take the night bus to Mendoza. Traffic was heavy but finally we came to the post office and I went straight into the package section. I showed the clerk, the same one from the last day, the note and he went into the back to fetch it. I was so excited! Finally, after two weeks I am gonna get it and take off out of Cordoba! He indeed came with the all-familiar Israeli package box with the post office symbol of white on blue deer hopping. When my turn came, I showed the custom man the note and he took the package, and as he was opening the package he asked for a passport. OH, SHIT…I forgot the passport in the hostel, some 10 blocks from the post. And get it, I took the passport with me the previous day because I knew that they ask for Identification but that day I forgot it. Well, I had a copy and I showed it to the custom man, but then he said that he need to see how much time I am in the country because I am suppose to pay 50% tax on the package content if I am more than 6 months in Argentina. FUCK! That meant that I had to take ANOTHER cab to the hostel, fetch the passport, and get back, and with all this when I need to check when is the next bus to Mendoza, buy a ticket and do a checkout by 11 am from the hostel. I tried to argue, but I was smart enough to stop short with that, as bureaucratese around the world don’t give about arguments – they need a written proof! While I was fuming on my way to the door, the custom man added that he needs also a copy of the passport. Great! The package was 20 cm from me, and still, I could not take it. Damn!
I rushed to the other side of the street and quickly waved for a cab parking at the side. It took us some more 10 minutes to get back to hostel, as traffic was even worse then getting to the post office. Just fuckn great! I was SO agitated! Finally, we arrived to the hostel and I told the guy to wait one minute and I rushed out into the street and into the hostel, went upstairs, taking my passport out of the locker and heading back down into the street and the waiting taxi. We headed back and soon we were back in Colon Street, where the post office center building is. Before leaving the cab, I asked the driver where can I do a photocopy and he pointed to an Internet point and I thanked him and paying for the service.
When I was copying the passport, I was debating whether I should also copy the stamp of the entry to Argentina. Naa, I said to myself, it is not possible to match the front page of the passport with the later pages (Yes they can, Chen, that’s why each passport has serial number pinched at the bottom…). So, I crossed the street and got back into the post office, and luckily for me, no other people where waiting for service so I immediately showed my passport and the copy of the front pages. “I need a copy of the stamp” he said and I was like going, why, why I had to be such a smart ass?! Lucky for me, he took the passport and went to photocopy the stamp with their own machine…finally, after filing some more forms (I like so much to fill those little things…NOT!) I received my package. YES! Done! I took out the stuffs, put them straight into my backpack and head out of the place, not willing to stay there even one more minute. I had to go and to inquire about the bus, so I walked across the city and after asking here and there I found a company that had several departures, but the cheapest ones where leaving either on 12:40 pm or on 11:30 pm…Now, time was around 10:00 am so I had some 2 and half hours to pack everything, check out and to climb the bus. It was possible, but I didn’t felt like rushing things, and more than that, the bus would have reached Mendoza by 11:30 pm more or less…Not such a good time to come into town, I would say…So I bought a ticket for 11:30 pm and went back to the hostel to pack my stuff.

Hitting Mendoza
So, after finishing all this arrangements I took my pack to the little niche they have in the hostel for packs deposit and left for, guess what, the Internet point of course! I stayed there almost till 11:00 pm, with occasional hopping to eat something and then returned back. I managed to do some last minute arrangements and then headed out, catching a taxi to the bus terminal. When I bought the ticket I forgot to ask which lane does my bus depart from so I had to look for it like 10 minutes before departure…I was so in a hurry, that when finally I found the bus I hurried and in the process of passing over some luggage left on the flower, I didn’t lift my leg high enough and stumbled over one bag. I remember that I started to collapse over my legs, making one effort able step after another, but still keeping loosing control and balance under the heavy 25 kg of shit I had on me. At the end I fell on my knee and cursed in Hebrew, while anger sparked in me in a millisecond. But, that held only for a minute, as I heard the roar of people laughing behind me, and the stares of those in front of me. Then, after I lifted my self with all the weight and started walking, I started laughing also, trying to imagine my self, a half man, half black elephant, stumbling like a huge stone falling from high ground, cursing on the way down…I kept on laughing even when I was sitting in the bus, and I was happy. Happy to get out of my usual getting-pissed-about-the-world.
Well, the bus left the station and another sleepless night ride started again.
We arrived to Mendoza around 10 am and when I went to look for a taxi, I saw that there is some kind of a line formed in the exit. Turns out, that the taxis were also lined in a row and a work manager was getting this line with the other line. When I went to the end of the line, I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt of a local hostel arranging some young people. Spotting me, he asked if I wana join in. I politely said that I don’t think so, as I didn’t felt like joining all those British people. And in any case, I had a place in mind, Sosahuas, which I knew absolutely nothing, but it looked ok from the flies I picked in Cordoba.
The cab driver was a talker and we talked about this and that while he chauffeured me across town to the hostel. Immediately I saw that along most of in all of the sidewalk in Mendoza were trees lined up, shading almost across the whole street. Sergio, the smiling owner, greeted me and told me they have room, for only 16 pesos. OK, I am in! I dropped my stuff in the empty dormitory and went outside to check, yes-yes, the internet and my emails. I was quite tired and not long after checking my emails I returned to the hostel for a quick rest.

Touring the city and wine tour
While I tried to see what I can do in Mendoza, a guy came into the hostel looking for a room. Jimmy, a 32 year old Belgian guy who works as a flight attendant, just came from Foz de Iguazu, and planned to stay a month or so more in Argentina. We had a beer together and also advised with Serge about things to do in the city. At the end we went out to eat something together. We chose a Tenedor libre, an eat-all-you-can restaurant, and while we savored over steaks and Choirzos, we talked about our life and about our trips experience. As Jimmy was pressed with time, he was going the next day to see the city and a couple of wineries, and asked if I want to join in. Why not? To finish up, we visited an Internet point, where I had a good surprise – email from Chris! What so good about it, you ask? Well, here is a copy of the email:

hey chen,
got my ticket! at 28th of Nov ill be in santiago.
looking forward, cu

No need to say I was happy to read this email! No one who knew about our plan really believed Chris would have come back to South America, and there where times that Me and Lee had little hope of seeing the guy again. But still, when Lee would think about the possibility Chris will be back, I replied her that Chris is a man of a word, and if he said he is gonna be back, he is gonna be back. I just hopped that we two will be still in the neighborhood when it happens. And, amazingly great, it will happen! But, now I had to reschedule my plans so I can at least find my way to be in Santiago more or less in the proximity of the 28th of November. On the one hand, I had on my hands two weeks in Mendoza, which is more than needed, but on the other, not only Santiago is much-much more expensive than Mendoza, but also I have nothing to do there, as I was already in the city at the start of my trip (see March archives). I discussed this with Jimmy and we pondered about what are my options.

As I am writing this, the guy that works here asked me how much more I have here. Well, I told him, at least 2-3 hours more (and I am already 4 and half hours here!) and he was, oh no, no…aside from me, nobody is in the joint, so he wastes his time here…We agreed that I will have 30 minutes more…

The next day we woke up lazily and went to tour the city, see the main plazas and the pedestrian street. After walking so much, we stopped at the San Martin Park entrance (a huge park, 700 hectares!) and had some coffee. As he was very calculative, Jimmy suggested that instead of seeing the park we might go to see a winery. I didn’t mind, as I had a lot of time to spend in Mendoza. So, after looking for the tourist information, we were shown a map and directions to one Bodega (Winery in Espanol), which is outside town in a little town called Maipu. This Bodega held also a Museum about Bodegas in the Mendoza area, so it sounded really good. The tour is, of course, free of charge (just remember the name is what important) and we came to the winery, we waited for some time till a young and alert guy named Pablo took us and merged us two with a school tour, some 15 kids with two adults accompanying them. Pablo had to work a bit hard as I asked if he can give the explanation also in English, but that’s what he is paid for, right?
The tour started at the vineyard and then continued into the elaborated museum containing numerous artifacts and historic tools used in the wine industry at the late years of the 19th century. It was interesting to see how they used to make wine in the early days and that part of the technology was used back then is still utilized in our modern days (for example, the separation of the stems from the grapes themselves prior to crushing them and extracting the grape juice). Mendoza region is responsible for more than 70% of Argentina’s wine production and is considered one of the best in the world due to a unique combination of altitude, relative humidity and rainfall.
After an hour and a half the tour ended in a wine tasting, and after that we said goodbye to Pablo and did our way back to Mendoza.

High mountains scenery
On our way back from the winery, Jimmy told me that he plans to go to a tour along the International route to Chile and asked if I want to come along. Now, as I saw that I have so much time on my hands, I thought that maybe I could do all these things apart, even though it would have cost me more than this tour would. At the end, I listed my self and the next morning, 7 am, me and Jimmy were already drinking coffee and waiting for the bus to come and pick us up.
First to climb the bus, there were only the guide and another tour guide that was taking notes and learning this tour before he takes responsibility for the next tours. The bus continued on to pick other tourists, from different countries and ages and finally, almost full, the bus took a west turn and headed toward the international route leading up into the mountains and the Chilean border.
The ride was very scenic, seeing the black low ridge of the first cordillera and in the background, the Andes with the Aconcagua jutting like a huge white table, dominating the scenery. We had a short stop at the little town Uspallata and then continued on toward our next stop, a little bridge from the time of General San Martin, which is the liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru. Actually, what happened is that I was so preoccupied with the scenery and thoughts, that I didn’t listen to what the guide was saying and when he said that we gonna do a stop to take some photos, I was surprised and asked him with all the serious one can ask, what is so special about this place that we stop to take a photo. The guide looked at me in a half surprise, half offend look and said that this is an historic place that was part of the Argentinean national history. Jimmy was already laughing from my tactless question, as I didn’t listen to a word the guy said in the past 20 minutes. I apologized several times and the guide said it was not that important and went ahead to show the group the old bridge, sitting across a river where the army of the Andes crossed on their way to Chile, where they liberated Santiago de Chile on 1818.
We continued on with our driving, and after much more driving we came to the ski resort of Los Penitentes where we stopped for sight seeing. We were given the opportunity to take the chair lifts to the first stop, a 200 meter high hill that usually is covered with snow but was barren when we were there (the skiing season was officially terminated around mid October, so we were almost a month after the end of the season). Almost all the bus agreed to pay the extra 12 pesos and take the chair lift. It was my first time to take this Chair lifts, and it reminded me a bit of the skydiving, or more accurately, the parachuting stage, when you feel floating in mid air, all is close and the immense feel of freedom…
The view from the first base was amazing, scouting across the valley from one side to another, above the little ski resort houses with their green tin roofs and the different facilities, and of course, the view above toward the still snowy mountains. It was not as cold as I thought, as I was with shorts and T shirt.
We continued on west toward the Chilean border, passing the Puente del Inca (Inca bridge) and coming close to Las Cuevas, a little town sitting several km from the border with Chile. On the way, we could see the tin and wood fortifications the Argentineans built in order that snow avalanches would not block the main road, as even now the snow was everywhere around the road and the fortification were half buried with snow.
On the way, we stopped for a photo op of the southern face of the mighty Aconcagua, a place I am planning to visit again…
Finally, we came to La Cumbre, the border checkpoint at 3834 meters ASL, where we stopped for photo-op. 20 meters below the road the valley was continuing north till the start of the ridge, and all this space was totally covered with ice and I, of course, went down to ice to take some photos, while the melting snow formed a small river that continued on east, toward the low land. Standing there on the edge of the glacier near the freezing flowing river was not one of the most intelligent acts I have done, but I got a nice perspective there and I didn’t stayed to long to see if the melting glacier will keep on holding my 64 kg much longer. I went back up the hill and back into the bus.
Noon time already passed so we were a bit hungry, so the plan was to east near Puente del Inca.
Puente del Inca is a famous attraction as it is both a legendary location and also a part of the area history. The site is very touristy and is surrounded around a natural mineral bridge that spans over the river that goes down from the mountain pass. Geologists explain this amazing natural phenomenon due to the flowing of the river carving through the mineral rock of the thermal waters that flow through the rock down to the flowing river. Near this amazingly colorful bridge is an old hotel, dated back from the 20s, that was a luxury place for the noble of that time. However, this hotel was devastated by a massive avalanche at 1965 and miraculously, the owner with his guests were saved as they stayed in the nearby colonial chapel (that still stands till this day).
This site is also part of legend: prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the son of an Inca chief was suffering from paralysis and the chief seek cure for his son. He heard about this area and with a group of warriors they all journeyed to this high pass, to find the thermal waters flowing through the colorful rock. Only, alas, a river flowed in between and there was no possibility of safely crossing it. So, the warriors in respect to their chief and goal, hold each other and formed a massive bridge that the chief could cross on with his child in his hands and thus reach the thermal waters. After his son was cured from his paralysis, the chief looked back to find his warriors turned into stone, forming a permanent bridge across this river.
After taking some pictures, we went to eat in a close restaurant and started our way back to Mendoza. A long, almost 4 hour drive back! On the way hail storm hit hard the area, with huge lumps crashing down on the road and on the bus windshield…

What next?!
The next day Jimmy went to do some rafting in the area while I went to visit the San Martin Park, with its long-long avenue of green trees on both sides and an elongated artificial lake. I met Jimmy in the evening, just before he departed to Bariloche, while he was all full of stories about the rafting and his experiences.
And what next? Well, looking to walk to the base camp of the Aconcagua, only I need to find partners to do that, and I am still looking…

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