Entering Mendoza province, I left the moody Patagonia weather for days of blue sky and sun over green vineyards. In the background the mighty Andes raise to greater heights than in the South and tower like a benign and awe-inspiring presence, reaching a whopping 6,959 m in Mount Aconcagua , the highest mountain of the American continent.
I found Mendoza a pleasant, chilled-out city that for its atmosphere, warm people and mild climate reminded me of a sea-side resort, without the sea. The water running through its canals, coming from the Andes’ glaciers, has been instrumental in building the now famous Argentinean wine industry.
My first Christmas on the other side of the world was at a community project ran by a Bolivian woman, Dona Coca, in a poor neighbourhood of Mendoza. Together with a group of German tourists, we spent the night singing, chatting and playing with the local kids. I am no fan of Christmas, but this is one to remember, sun and summer included.
We then continued on a rural tourism circuit called Camino de Altamira, in the Uco Valley, a famous wine region outside Mendoza. The circuit was set-up by locals in the aftermath of the 2000 economic crisis to make a living and don’t be forced to emigrate. Their ingenuity, pride and perseverance in keeping the chin up despite a difficult situation moved me.
In the small villages of the Valley we visited artisans and craftsmen producing hand-made knives, wine, fruit and pottery. The real jewels though were the local people and their stories. I listened bewitched to the love story of the local Romeo and Juliet, 80-year old Camillo and Blanquita, one of the sweetest couple I have ever met. Holding hands they told me how their love thrived in spite of their families opposing it.
By now I had noticed many times roadside shrines with red flags without knowing what they represented. Finally in Mendoza I solved the puzzle and had a close encounter with Gauchito Gil (Little Gaucho Gil) by visiting one of his larger shrines. I came to realize that a country is like a person, with its quirks that become clear only once you are there: Gauchito Gil is one of the quirks of Argentina. He is a folklore saint-like figure much-revered and called upon for miracles and protection. He is based on a real-life character whose story has a few versions and anticonformism is one of his key traits, together with miracles, of course.
As we are in Mendoza province, savouring a glass of red Malbec, let’s sit back and relax.
Some Argentinean music is playing in the background, you can choose what you prefer.
There is the folk group called Los Nocheros
the contemporary cool tango group Bajofondo
or the poet-singer Atahualpa Yupanqui who lived in exile in Europe during the military dictatorship.
Hopefully the atmosphere is now set for some musing on my experience of travelling and in particular travelling solo, which many people asked me about.
I don’t remember who said that solitude is a door that can be opened only from the inside. What I realized on my skin is that travelling solo, like many other things in life, depends a lot on you and what you make of it. You are on it by yourself, far away from what and who is known. You cannot reach out as easily to trusted friends and there is no instant calling them to cheer-up and for comfort. I had an old cell phone with local SIM card that didn’t use much and had no laptop with me. If I wanted to meet people, I had to experiment and find new ways of opening up and connecting.
Sometimes I enjoyed my company, day-dreaming or just sitting in a bus and travelling through time and space. I felt very lonely at times, maybe the loneliest I felt in my life. I looked back to my life and felt intensely the passing of time and nostalgia for what has been, or longing for what could have been but wasn’t. Usually though, if I was having the blues, something would always happen to cheer me up, eventually. For me coming from a dark period after my dad’s death, being able to stretch out and connect with very different types of people was a little miracle in itself. Still now looking back at the myriads of chats and laugh I had on the road I feel like someone gave me a lot of gifts.
Chance and sometimes fleeting encounters, lasting few hours or maybe an afternoon, like bonding with an Argentinean girl over a chick-flick playing on our bus to Salta, happened regularly side to side with the forming of deeper and I hope long-lasting friendships that made my travelling solo experience a generously filled, more than half full glass.
When travelling, at times I just lived in the moment, more than I normally would, and nothing else existed: that walk, that night, a dinner with a glass of wine, a friendly face…
Sometimes I laughed with all my heart; sometimes I lived magic moments; other times I was bored or simply so so. I was going forward tentatively, in turn withdrawing and opening to the world.
Sometimes I wondered what would happen next: would I grow weary of the travel? –Which sometimes I did- what am I looking for, am I doing the right choices?
Time and again I realized that I could not foresee when the next good or even magic moment would be and what a place would yield, no matter what I had heard before on the place or what my expectations were. Nothing prepared me to the lucky chance I had in Torres del Paine, nor to the nice people I met in Puerto Natales, Trevelin & El Bolson and many other places.
Equally, I was disappointed by some places, for instance Punta Arenas in Chile, while New Year’s Eve in Tafi del Valle, in North-West Argentina, was a downright, big fiasco, through also fault of my own. I rarely heard two people having exactly the same experience of a place. Also one’s mood, or at least mine, influenced a lot how I’d feel in a place.
So, what do you think, is the solo traveller glass half full or half empty?
Let’s take to the road again, as in next post we head to North-West of Argentina and I will tell you how I became a bit Argentinean myself.