Argentina Diaries: Day 6 / by vanessa

Thursday morning we awoke at 8. Though my body dreaded the hike ahead of us, my heart couldn’t wait. We packed our lunch (I added more bananas to my sandwich second time around) and made our way to the foot of the Laguna del Torre hike.

Unlike the day before, there was no wind and only a light drizzle. The guidebooks said our hike would be about 7 hours which meant that we got a late start. Technically this hike should’ve been easier than our last, but as I said, ratings don’t indicate cardio exertion. We climbed uphill for roughly one million miles. Fortunately, along the way, we got to see a condor (magnificent) and a couple of woodpeckers. The guidebooks say that if the weather conditions are favorable, then this hike is a must for a chance to see Cerro Torre unencumbered by clouds. As we trekked the sun started to peak out and we found ourselves shedding layers.

There’s a cool attributed to Patagonian hikes: often you’ll come to a point in the trail where it will split in two or ore directions without any signs for instruction. What you’ll find though is that the disparate paths all lead back together, with the shorter trails being harder and the longer ones easier. I couldn’t help but think of Rilke and wonder if the construction of the trails in this way was some intentional spiritual lesson.

Eventually we descended into a valley – its terrain different from the previous day’s. Hav mentioned that Patagonia is similar to Big Bend in its expansiveness and space. True, true, but Big Bend already has cell coverage.

At the edge of the valley we came to a moraine – the last climb before the lagoon. We scaled the glacial debris and atop the ridge there it was – Piedras Torre and the lagoon. Two small icebergs floated in the lagoon. This oasis seemed more spectacular than the one before. It coulda been that while yesterday we were in winter, today felt clearly like spring.

We sat down and just stared at it for a long time. In the mountains surrounding the glacier we heard a thunderous roar. Avalanche! We looked but saw nothing. It lasted maybe 15 seconds and when it was quiet again I wondered if anything had been lost.

The clouds started to lift and Cerro Torre threatened to lift its shirt. More people arrive – hardly crowded by any stretch but more populated than we were accustomed to. Hav went down to the water’s edge to skip rocks. Skipping rocks in a glacial pool is so much cooler than, say, Lake Travis. He returned after about five minutes with an iceberg’s remnant in his mouth. I bit off some too, just so I could say I’ve eaten iceberg.

Next we walked about 100 meters and perched ourselves in front of one of the two icebergs. It reminded me of a monochrome replica of Seattle’s Experience Music Project until I realized how f’ed up post-modern it is to say that nature imitates art. Hay-seuss. Anyway I am now certain Gehry has seen icebergs.

Begrudgingly we headed back after about an hour. We felt our fingernails clawing into the earth with each step. Where did the time go? This was, in fact, one of the first times I had thought of time – or how little of it we had left. It took me several days to shake my concerns of work and now that I finally had, I didn’t want to be reminded.

Rarely does a trip take longer on its return than its beginning. However, it was now downright balmy so we stopped often to sun ourselves like lizards. Many, many more hikers came, all taking advantage of the kind climate. About ½ way home, we turned around to catch a glimpse of where we’d been and there it was: Cerro Torre, completely disrobed, peeking above the hills. Damn. Cerro Torre is an ice-covered Exact-o knife. Though not the tallest in the Fitz Roy range, (that honor goes to Cerro Fitz Roy itself), it’s definitely the coolest looking. Its striking shape separates it from its peers. It’s the new, cook kid in lass, and we were lucky enough to hang with it.

We really couldn’t help ourselves so we kept stopping, but never staying as long as we’d have wished to in any one place. The clock ticked loudly and soon we’d be getting on a bus to head back to El Calafate. Given the choice, we took a different path back to town which turned out an excellent selection. The path to centre El Chaten offered high cliff walls, a waterfall winding hundreds of feet down a hill into a rushing Rio Fitz Roy.

Upon making our way into town, Hav stopped for ice cream and I for souvenirs. I also got a set of El Chaten playing cards. Ooh. One of the sucky things about looking for souvenirs in Patagonia is that naturally, all the t-shirts say “Patagonia” on them. That’d be okay ‘cept there’s a very famous clothing manufacturer who, at least in the States, has co-opted the name so that now, when my brothers are wearing a shirt that I travelled 18 hours to get, means nothing. I am not special nor are they. When I bring this up to Hav he reminds me that Patagonia (the company) is “actually pretty legit.” Yes. I know. He forgets that I, in this moment, don’t care about any of that corporate responsibility shit and I’m just concerned about an eroding sense of coolness.

We waited for the bus in the youth hostel, where the crazy Brazilian from the trail sat right behind us. He was talking to a guy from Chicago wearing a Michigan t-shirt. I don’t know what it is but whenever I see collegiate t-shirts in a foreign country I am always inclined to talk college sports. And because Ohio State beat Michigan and Ohio Sate is now in the championship while my beloved Mizzou is relegated to the Cotton Bowl, well it seemed like something to talk about. The fact that that same American also lived in Santiago for a year? BO-ring. P.S. Rancho Grande Youth Hostel overcharged me for our meal, but having failing Spanish I decided not to contend.

We boarded the bus at 6 p.m. The wide, open view of Cerro Torre taunted us on our way out of town. A tour bus in front of us pulled off the road to let its passengers take pictures. A clear sighting of Cerro Torre must be like witnessing Bigfoot. This prompted a string of unsuccessful attempts by our passengers to persuade our driver to follow suit. Not only was he not going to pull over, but evidently he was rude about it. An Italian woman returned to her seat mumbling, “Grazie mille. Molto gentile.” His repeated refusals resulted in a near mutiny amongst the passengers, which had no effect on this driver. Or so we thought. An hour down Route 40 with the mountains still in view, he pulled the bus over unannounced. In his poetic way he opened the door and simply said, “Foto.” Everyone got up and filed out. The Italian woman’s husband (who also complained earlier) was one of the last to get on the bus which irked the driver. I half expected him to start driving.

We stopped once again at Estancia La Leona. I eagerly anticipated the hot chocolate. This time however, Leona was nowhere to be found. Her sons, or whoever made my cocoa, not only over-charged me (see a pattern) but also delivered a mediocre drink. Plus the banana bread was eh.

Finally we returned to El Calafate at 9:30 p.m. Hav and I promptly headed over to our hotel whose name is Hotel Schilling but I call it “our little circus peanut” because it looks like a giant replica of that orange Halloween confection. We checked into our room, dropped our stuff off, then headed into town. We needed or wanted (I don’t really recall which) a drink. Lonely Planet gave an author’s pick to Casimiro, so we went there. I had a glass of wine and Hav a beer (he liked the Quilmes, Argentina’s national beer, Bock) and we shared quesadillas served with hot, hot salsa. I love hot salsa. Yay. We weren’t hungry but that hasn’t stopped us yet so we nearly ate the whole damn thing then waddled back to Circus Peanut.

In the morning we forewent the hotel’s complimentary breakfast because we assumed we could get something better in town. We’ll never know but I doubt it, primarily because at 9 in the morning on a Friday, nothing is open save a lone café whose waiter told me he’s “studying English but not American English, British English even the pronunciation.” Mmhmm. I can tell. I coulda sworn you were from Oxford. That’s catty I know, but my nationalism feathers had just been ruffled not 15 minutes earlier. As Hav and I cruised Av. Liertador waiting or something – anything – to open, we passed a store window full of t-shirts. One of the shirts had a stenciled image of a man whose beard spelled out the word “ALIVE”. I stared at the image of the man. “Is that Osho, Havis?” Osho… of course Osho in the middle of South America. Duh. “No,” he answered, “it’s Osama bin Laden.” I looked again and sure enough the stenciled image before me was the man who had waged jihad against America. This probably isn’t the time to go into detail about my political views, but suffice to say I think Fox News is fascist propaganda. I hold probably unconventional opinions about the big picture of 9/11 but still, WTF? If the point is that the US government has spent ungodly amounts of money and hundreds of lives have been lost in the pursuit of this man – okay – but why plaster a violent coward’s face on t-shirts and give him any more publicity? My reaction was visceral; the fact that I responded so emotionally surprised me.

At noon we left for Buenos Aires again. Bye bye Patagonia. I hope to be back. On LAN (which is an airline you should take if you’re ever in South America), they run some clips of a show called Just for Giggles. I think it must be British. It’s a hidden camera hijinks show. Not quite like Punk’d because it uses real people (everyone knows celebrities aren’t real). Anyway there’s a segment where they show cars all stopped at a traffic light. In the crosswalk there’s this hot blonde who makes eye contact with a driver, winks, smiles, then writes her number in the lipstick on his windshield and keeps walking. A second or two later a man with a squeegee comes to clean the windshield. The guy in the car freaks out as the number quickly disappears. Pure hilarity.

You’ll be happy to know that though two babies were on the plane they were a) quiet and b) not near me. However, as I write this, dogs are barking loudly outside my window. In fact, I’m only writing now because I’ve been woken by their yelps from my well-deserved nap. I’m again pissed at phantom owners. I fantasize about making t-shirts for a revenge that I know I’ll never exact. “Your dog is faking it” comes to mind. I like it but Hav reminds me that it could be interpreted wrong and that’d be kinda gross. Eventually we settle on, “Your dog’s only pretending,” which brought us both immense satisfaction.

At the airport in BA we Christmas shopped. Yep. At the airport. I’m really sorry to all my friends who pictured that the gifts they received were purchased in this charming store on a cobbled street in a hip neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Nope.

There’s a yoga studio near our apartment (actually there are two) and after we dropped our bags off we headed over so I could check the schedule. I ended up losing a 5 pesos bet that the studio didn’t hold classes on Saturday because the door misleadingly states, “Lundi y Viernes.” A chirpy, sweet girl at the counter explained the different classes they offered but because I hadn’t been there before I couldn’t take the SwaSthya. Which was fine with me because I still don’t even know what SwaSthya means, but Hav, defending my yoga honor said, “But she’s really good!” His insistence warmed my heart. At any rate, all the classes were in Spanish, and we all know how I’ve been faring there, so taking a beginners’ class suited me just fine. Incidentally, yoga here is 40 pesos (US$13), which is testament to the cost of living. While not LA’s $17 or NYC’s $21, neither is it pocket change.

An hour and a half later I ended up back at the studio and the girl at the counter earlier welcomed me into a waiting room. She’d be the teacher. The waiting room is a high-ceiling space with a low table in the center and chairs and big cushions positioned around it. A bunch of students were hanging out around the table. As new ones walked in, they went around and greeted each person with a kiss on the cheek. I eschewed the custom and quickly chose a seat on a cushion, pulled out my journal and buried my head in it, hoping not to be revealed. An impish girl ignored my obvious attempt at solitude and welcomed me with a peck on the cheek. And then she started talking to me. “Lo siento,” I told her, “no entiendo.” Another girl translated: “She said ‘Hi – where are you from?’” Ohhhhh! (I should know this but nothing seems to sound the way it looks in my Spanish dictionary.) “Los Angeles,” I answered. And then, the most incredible thing happened: the whole table started speaking to me in English, some broken, others fluent, asking me what I did for a living, was I in the earthquake, did I know Santa Monica, do I like Argentina, and where else have I been? As I answered each question and asked them my own, I felt connected to BA in a way that had previously escaped me. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for HOW MUCH community yoga has given me – at home and even across continents. The class was about to begin. I kissed all of my new friends goodbye and headed upstairs.

The floor in the yoga room was covered in that material you usually see under jungle gyms, so the teacher told me I didn’t need my mat. I pictured people sweating and standing with dirty feet all over where I would place my hands. I wanted to disagree, but I didn’t know the words, and after my hospitable welcoming, well, I figured when in Rome…

It’s a funny thing, taking a class in a language you don’t understand. Any semblance of a familiar practice in your body is abandoned to serve a more immediate need to just understand. Fortunately when I wasn’t doing as instructed she was kind enough to translate in English. We did a bunch of balancing, forward bends, and abs – which after 7 days of beer, bread, and cheese, I sorely needed. The class ended 55 minutes later and I changed clothes and headed back downstairs to the foyer where Clarisa, (our teacher), Hilary, (an American journalist who’s been living here for 4 ½ years) and Alexia (a 19 year-old portena who will be heading to fine arts school in a few months) were sharing sweetened chai. They offered me some and I accepted. I can’t tell you how much I cherished the conversation that ensued. We talked only about the usual surface stuff you cover with new acquaintances, but I felt as though I had crossed the first of many lines demarking tourist from local.

Hav came in and met us. They asked him where he was from to which he answered, “Oh I assumed she told you our whole story.” Initially I felt betrayed and then I felt relieved that I hadn’t. I mistakenly tried to broker the connection I experienced. A pregnant lull reared, and we all broke; Hilary, Scott, and I heading in the same direction. This afforded us more opportunity to mine her for information.
Q. How much is an apartment here to buy?
A. In Palermo Soho, which in her opinion and so far ours as well, it is about US$70k for a studio. A 2 ½ bedroom place would be about US$150k. The problem is that to buy here you really have to pay cash since the mortgage rates are so inconsistent and high.
Q. Are salaries commiserate with cost of living?
A. No, not really. The way to do it is to be employed by a foreign company so that you’re on US pay scales. She feels like she’s very wealthy in BA.
Q. Did I understand correctly that Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was inaugurated on Monday and therefore it was a national holiday resulting in free subway fares? And that her husband was former president?
A. She didn’t know about the subway, but yes, Cristina was inaugurated and she succeeded her husband in the presidency. In fact, she has had a long political life and was actually much better known than her husband when he was elected. They don’t really have primaries here – it’s sort of like the parties decide internally, “hey this is who should run.” I mentioned that we saw campaign signs for her even in El Chaten. “That makes sense,” she told us, “because Cristina is from Santa Cruz (the province of El Chaten).” She went on to say that Cristina and her husband have a house in El Calafate and they are regularly there. “Havis – I told you!” I taunted. It’s true. While we were in El Calafate I told him I’d read that Kirchner had a house somewhere just of Av. Libertador, but he doubted my bank of Argentine trivia.
Q. Isn’t El Calafate like an Argentinean Vail – plenty of facelifts and fur coats?
A. Yes. It’s sort of a fabricated place, only there as a gateway to tourist spots.

And now, I am an expert on Buenos Aires, and really, Argentina. Go ahead. Ask me anything… except for how to speak Spanish.

We parted ways and Hav and I headed over to Dashi, the sushi place we attempted to go on my birthday. This time we made a back up plan of La Dorita. Fortunately we didn’t need our alternate plan and we ate a boatload (quite literally – they serve your rolls on a bamboo boat) of forgettable sushi.

One of my favorite experiences has been the long walks we take after eating. Walking is both a digestif and meditative exercise in one. Here, though taxis are pretty cheap, we have repeatedly chosen to stroll after meals for one to two hours. The five pounds that I’ve gained is probably testament to the quantity I’ve consumed rather than my activity level. I’d like to think I’ll continue this practice back home in car culture.