Musing over a glass of Malbec in Mendoza: is the solo traveller’ glass half full or half empty?

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.

Uco Valley, Mendoza

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.

Gauchito Gil's shrine, Mendoza province

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.

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Image via Wikipedia

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.

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13 thoughts on “Musing over a glass of Malbec in Mendoza: is the solo traveller’ glass half full or half empty?

  1. Glad I read this post in the evening otherwise I would have felt a little awkward with the strong urge I now feel to drink red wine!

    Let me say that as I followed your journey through your occasional e-mails, above all else I admired your — no perfect word here — in part courage, but I think even more so will.

    When I traveled alone, not so often over the years, but more often than I would have liked (and never as far as long and as far as you managed — hence my admiration), I found that the most elusive ingredient was will. Sometimes it was the will to keep on going, to see something more. Will power is the necessary combustion for curiosity and desire; without, there isn’t much. But sometimes (perhaps more often) I found the hardest part of traveling alone the will to stay still; to sit through the awkward moment. Even harder still the ability for me to connect to new people when traveling alone. I never managed it. I describe myself as rug that is too tightly woven; you need those little loose threads to connect to other people.

    Back in my days of solo traveling for me the hardest part was to find a place to eat dinner. Lunch was easy, because often you find people eating a quick work lunch, but dinner was tough. I would circle around for hours sometimes, looking for a place that wasn’t empty, but not too crowded, and had the right kind of arrangement where I could observe but not feel too exposed.

    My favorite solo trip was a walking tour in Tuscany. I found the walking took my mind off everything else, and let me focus on the moment.

    I have meant to ask you (and will — next time in person — ideally over a glass of wine!) if there is any simple, or even complex, self-wisdom that came out of the journey. These journeys are often described as voyages of self-discovery, and that is the part I find draws me very much to the idea. The hope of finding some change, even a small one, that makes my life better. These little changes aren’t profound, but sometimes it does take time away to find them. A very simple pleasure I have found recently through travel is an appreciate for nature. Nothing profound in enjoying sunset, but not anything that I had truly enjoyed before.

    In any case, look forward to the next chapter of your journey!

    xo

    bb

    • Hi Bb, thank you for your wonderful comment and for sharing your experiences travelling solo. The question you ask on the self-wisdom found on the road and the self-discovery element of the trip is a very important one, so much so that I think I will devote a post to this soon, and it will be dedicated to you! 🙂
      Hope also to be able to share this in person with, but in a nutshell, yes, even more now that I am back from the trip I noticed some profound shifts in my perception of the world. More to come!

    • Thank you Rencita!and cheers to the future travels to South East Asia, which won’t be a solo travel! 😉

  2. Thank you for this very thought provoking piece on travel. No, it’s not all sunsets, cheerful party friends and great adventures. There are the lonely evenings – and as your friend expresses it, the difficulty of finding the right venue for having dinner. The experiences we take with us on solo travel matter as much as the will, the attitude and courage. But age matters, too, I think. Younger solo travellers have far less difficulty finding somebody to talk to.

    As I middle-aged woman travelling alone I found that people mostly shun you and are not interested in talking to you – in fact, some looked at me as if I was a loony, when I tried to chat on a bus or train (no, I did not attempt to do that in the UK! Anyone doing that on the London underground would probably be thrown out by the other passengers.).

    I also admire your courage and determination to carry on in the face of adversity. looking forward to learning more about your travels. Cheers. M.

    • Hi M, thank you for your comment. I was tempted to make it rosier than it is, but then remembered what Rolf Potts, traveler and author of books on traveling, said, which is what you are saying and what has been also my experience.I agree with you on the age, younger travelers have an easier time meeting people. And I have to say as a woman traveling, sometimes I felt shy of going out by myself by night, or even just scared. At times just felt that when I was traveling with someone else, I’d make it easier to feel less awkward and speak with people. but when traveling by myself, it forced me to have a lot of interactions with locals, and use my spanish and learn Portuguese, so am very happy for this

  3. This is a beautiful and thoughtful post!

    I am looking forward to my own solo travel through South America, but I am hoping that, like you, I meet a few people along the way 🙂

    I also agree with Bombay Beauty, above, though: “These journeys are often described as voyages of self-discovery, and that is the part I find draws me very much to the idea.” I am at a bit of a crossroads in my life right now, and I am interested in how this trip might change me.

    I enjoyed reading; thank you!

    • Thank you! You will certainly meet people, and you will certainly change. I define myself an open, curious person, but i think after a years on the road, this went to another level I could not have imagined before…..as I said to Bombay, will definitely write a post on this and will be interested in hearing what your experience will be.

  4. Pingback: I want to go to Mendoza, Argentina « Follow Abbie

  5. Hi Giulia! I think that the solo traveller’s glass is sometimes full and sometimes empty… Many times you get some rewarding experiences that could not have ocurred in a group, and sometimes it gets downright regretful…

    Of course sharing those experiences is what makes solo travelling difficult. One is so happy being at a place that you want to pick up a phone and tell everybody (then the glass becomes empty again).

    But thanks a lot for sharing your adventures with us, hopefully this will help to refill your glass once more 🙂

    • You are right Carlos, sometimes full and sometimes empty. and you are also right, sharing my adventures in the blog is like having a good two glasses in one go! 🙂

  6. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts about travels in Argentina and Chile. One of the posts I want to write on my blog is about my own travels as a middle-aged woman in Argentina. The first time I went, in 2009, I felt lonely, but when I returned for the third time a couple of months ago, my Spanish had improved so that I could converse with people, and I was so busy, I never felt lonely. Uncomfortable at times, yes, but lonely or bored, never. And I can’t wait to return for my next adventure.

    • Hi, I am glad you enjoyed my posts and look forward to reading yours! Yes, speaking the language definitely helps to connect with people and learn a bit more about them and the place. Take care

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