Adventure #3

En bicicleta

This was the best adventure of all.

On my third-to-last day in La Rioja, a Thursday, two friends and I took off on a bicycle adventure for what turned out to be possibly the coolest day in La Rioja. The two friends are Ann and Raúl. Both work work in the university kitchen under the Chinese chef, where I was working. Ann is a foreigner like myself - a Colombian. Raúl is from Argentina (from the Iguazú region, actually.)

Che Guevera, an Argentine, once left his native Córdoba to trek though South America on motorcycle. My father, a Yanqui like me, once left from California to trek across the USA on bicycle. Our adventure would be in the sprit of Che Guevera or Gordon Pitt, we hoped.

We actually wanted to do an overnight camping-bicycle tour. But we didn't have it together enough to organize that. Instead, we squeezed our tour into a Thursday afternoon. But it was still great! First of all, we got free wine. For real. We finished cleaning up the university kitchen after the lunch shift, and all of the sudden Martín (the chinese professor and owner of the kitchen) says "let's take out the wine!" He never did this before. I still don't know why he did that day, but heck, I ain't complaining. The four of us: Raúl, Ann, Martín, and I, get a nice big glass of fine red wine with our spicy beef-and-vegetable stew. Cool guy, Martín.

At 3:00PM we say goodbye to Martín take off on our bicycles. Mid June is the southern hemisphere's late autumn, so even warm La Rioja is starting to feel a chilly. It's cold enough for sweatshirts.

La Rioja is not the most aesthetically pleasing location. It's pretty much a flat, dusty desert with no green. BUT, less than a half hour bikeride away is a beautiful mountain range that makes up for all of the city's ugliness. This is where the three of us are heading. Our goal is to get to the top of a mountain Raúl knows, where there's a view of the entire city.

First we have to get to La Rioja's reservoir, about 15km into the mountains. The road leading to the reservoir is marvelous. It runs right through a section of town called la quebrada -"the gorge"-, where all the rich politicians live. Biking through la quebrada makes something very apparent; In Argentina there are only three social classes: dirt poor, lower-middle class, and politician. The politicians are disgustingly more wealthy than the rest of the population. They effectively steal all the country's tax money and build themselves mansions in places like la quebrada. It's really horrible actually, when you see the poverty that many live in only 10km away. But it does makes for a gorgeous bikeride to the reservoir! Huge villas with beautiful gardens, perfectly kept expansive green lawns, marble fountains and statues, elegant patios and private vineyards, all tactfully built into the mountain backdrop. Its a sight to see, especially in rural Argentina some 800 miles from Buenos Aires.

The ride to get to the reservoir is a climb, but it's not too hard. Except for the fact that Raúl's chain keeps locking up. But Raúl never gets frustrated; he's a very chill kid; I like that about him. He keeps calm. "The chain falls off when I put too much force on the pedal. If I don't press too hard it won't happen again." Raúl is also our guide. Ann and I know enough to get to the reservoir, but Raúl knows about a path behind the La Rioja Fishing Club that takes you to the top of the mountain.

Now the bikeride get's hard. The path behind the reservoir is unpaved and steep. We have to walk our bikes at points. And the path is not short at all. Ann and I were expecting a twenty minute bike/hike after the reservoir. It turned out to be two hours. But Ann, like Raúl, is a chill kid. Never complained once.

Ann is attractive. But not romantically attractive. Does that make sense? She's the kind of attractive that makes you want to be good friends with her. She is very pretty; dark skin, thick black hair, and compelling eyes; but she's not coquettish or flirty at all. She has an Appalachian Trail hiker look to her. She's someone you want to go hiking with. Very mature and serious-- Raúl too. The two of them never act like children, never make stupid fart jokes or nudge you when a girl with big boobs walks by. Raúl is very attractive too, now that I think of it. Tall and dark skinned, with black-rimmed glasses and a well-formed face. They are cool people; and very cool to go adventuring with.

On our climb we see three or four mountainbikers bombing down the slopes, on a trail even less paved than the one we're on. They're wearing full motocross armor and standing over their bikes on a ledge. One by one, they take off from where they are standing and continue their plummet. We see the first one take off and (of course) hit a rock, fly over his handlebars, and crash to the ground several feet away. Let me explain that these mountains are not the Appalachian. They're steeper, rockier, and more menacing. Instead of soft bushes and leaves on the ground, you have jagged rocks and cacti. Not a place you want to fall off your bike. For a few moments the wipeout victim doesn't move; his friends are calling his name "¿Pucho? ¿Estás bien?" We see Pucho sort of gesture that he's alive, and his friends start walking down towards him. I try to explain to Ann and Raúl the english term "wipeout."

"That's a wipeout" seems to be a good enough definition.

Finally, after two hours, we make it to the top. I would love to say "When we finally made it to the summit, it was worth all the struggle to get there." But that wouldn't be accurate. It was the struggle I liked. The hike to the top with Ann and Raúl was way cooler that standing at the top of the mountain. It was a classic case of 'the journey is more important than the destination'. I have to admit though, the view from the summit is pretty cool. You could see the entire city of La Rioja; the university, the huge radio tower, the bus terminal, the barrios (neighborhoods) laid out in grids, the cathedrals and tall buildings, everything. But even better is the view of the mountains. This I wasn't expecting. I turn 180º away from the city and see the sun was setting behind the sierra. Breathtaking. I watched the sky fill up with reds and oranges and purples, and saw the shadows of the farther mountains bend and stretch over the nearer ones. For about thirty seconds, I really wanted to be an impressionist painter with a canvas and acrylics on hand.

The sun is setting. Wait. That's a problem, isn't it? The moon is rising and the stars are starting to come out, and we're miles from the nearest road. This would also be a good time to mention that the rear brake on my bike doesn't work, at all. And Ann has a flat. It seemed like a really good time to panicking. But maybe the chillness of Raúl and Ann was rubbing off on me because we just hopped on our bikes and went, practically without a word. Ann has a flat, Raúl can't put pressure on the pedal, and I have a defunct rear brake. When the sun really sets, it's dark! My cellphone has a flashlight feature; I light it, hoping to illuminate the path at least a bit. Turns out that when I stick it in my mouth like a cigarette, I can sort of see where I'm going.

The descent. Significantly easier than the climb. Though my left hand (front brake) is starting to ache from doing 100% the breaking. We descend for a quite a while. I start to realize just how much distance we covered climbing up. We went really damn far! By the time we reach the reservoir again it's pitch black.

From the reservoir the road is well-enough lit by streetlights that I can turn my cigarette-phone off. And we're coasting downhill anyway so we hardly have to pedal. Before I know it we reach the fork in the road where I go one way, and Ann and Raúl go another. Over like that. Five-and-a-half hours (it's almost 9:00PM now), but it passed like a flash. Suddenly I'm saying my final farewell to my fellow cooks/adventurers. What a bummer. These are some really cool cats. I'll miss them a lot.

It was a super cool last day to spend with some of the coolest people I met in Argentina.

Adventure #2

[8.31.09] Yes, here it is, two months after I arrived home in NJ, the post about my last weeks in Argentina. The blog must be collecting electronic data's equivalent of dust and cobwebs. But I want to publish this final post anyway for some sense of completion. Know what I mean? I've gotta finish this blog up. Anyway, if you want to skip ahead right to adventure #3, It's a better story. Or maybe not a better story; it was just a better adventure.


Adventure #2 - Iguazú Falls

This is it? Iguazú National Park?

I don't know, when I think of a National Park, especially in South America, I envision a wild overgrown jungle with dirt paths and Yellow Fever mosquitos flying around. I expect a wilderness adventure. But what do I get? an over-developed little with park with paved sidewalks and hand rails, and cute overpriced gift shops at every corner. I was expecting the Grand Canyon and I got something more like Disney World. Go figure.

There are a ton of foreigners here. More blond heads than usual, and people speaking German, French, Italian, Polish, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Indian, English, and probably a bunch of other languages too. A sizable amount of East Asians and Indians here. There's something interesting about seeing Indians (like, the kind from India) in South America; the Indian skin tone sort of matches with the native south american skin tone. They don't necessarily look similar. The facial structure and the hair is different, and the language is different, but the skin tone sort of matches. Maybe Colombus was on to something.

So once I'm inside Igazú park with Angelo and Oliver, first thing a bunch of park employees offer us guided tours. But we decide to walk on our own. It was a much better idea: the park was surprisingly small, you could easily walk all the (paved) trails in less than a day. That's basically what we did.

It was not a wilderness adventure. Not enough wilderness for that. I wound up going on an adventure I wasn't expecting: an adventure through old memories.

This kind of surprised me. In La Rioja, I was in the desert for four months seeing cactuses and dusty plains. It was four months that my brain just could not form visual associations with any environments I had lived in in my past. When I found myself in the green and forested surroundings of Iguazú park after four months of desert, a trigger went off in my brain and a flood of memories gushed forth. My mind warped five years and ten thousand miles away to the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. (I'm still kind of surprised at that association. I don't think Iguazú really looks much like the Blue Ridge. Maybe it was just the concept of hiking that was the trigger.) Wow! My feet are in South America on the border of Argentina and Brasil, but mentally I'm hiking the Appalachian Trail as thirteen-year-old Dave at summer camp. It was a really strong sensation. An adventure down memory lane.

But back to real time. The main attraction at Iguazú is a huge, Niagara-caliber cascade called La Garganta del Diablo ("Devil's Throat Falls"). But to get there you have to go through a bunch of smaller, less impressive falls. That's where we have just arrived now, at the first of the smaller falls. Iguazú park is small and a little over-developed, but I realize it's no less beautiful for it. It's cute.

Ollie takes out the map and pinpoints exactly where we're standing. If there's one thing Ollie loves to do it's plan things out. He planned every single day of his six months in Argentina with an extensive itinerary on an Excel spreadsheet. He is definitely in his element right now holding and analyzing the map. I watch him study the Iguazú guide, calculate carefully, and then trace with his index finger the optimum walking tour for the day.

Our morning is aesthetically pleasing. When you see pictures, you'll know what I mean. You have two views of the falls: From the sendero superior (upper path) and the sendero inferior (lower path). From the upper path you're level with the top of the falls and you can look over the edge. From the lower path you can walk underneath the falls and get wet. From both angles you can see tons of rainbows. (I'm trying to imagine how many rainbows are in one ton, based of the average weight of rainbows. It's probably a lot.) Rainbows are really cool. I noticed for the first time that they form perfect circles, except they're incomplete because they run into some obstacle like the ground or a cliff or whatever; but if the bow were to keep going, it would eventually reach the starting point again. That's the type of thing a physics teacher would tell you, I think. I would believe him now because I could sort of see it. They're nice to look at, those rainbows.

Next Ollie, Angelo and I take a ferryboat to a little island to eat our lunch. Buying lunch in Iguazú park would have been something like $15 (USD) each, which is expensive for USA but unthinkable for Argentina. So we packed sandwich materials in Ollie's bag.

Something I must clarify: Ollie is from the United Kingdom, and he is also white. "White" in this context is not a question of skin color. Angelo (from La Rioja) is just as fair skinned as Ollie but Angelo is not white. Being white, I leaned, is a question of how you make a sandwich. Allow me to elaborate. First of all, Ollie packed whole-wheat bread. That right there is enough to classify him as caucasian. But it gets worse- he packed fresh lettuce and tomato, "for the fiber". But the icing on the cake is when he leaves his sandwich open-faced, with no bread on top. Angelo, digging into a white-bread-ham-mayo sandwich, is confused. "Why don't you have bread on top, dude?" Ollie's answer: "That would be a bunch of extra carbs that I really don't need if I want to have a balanced meal." The whitest response you could hope for.

I had to explain to Angelo that open-faced sandwiches are extremely white. Angelo had been referring to Ollie as "pussy boy," which I guess is accurate enough. In Angelo's vocabulary open-faced sandwiches are "pussy food". It's the right idea.

After our gourmet paper-bag sandwiches, we follow pussy boy's exquisitely well planned route to Devil's Throat Falls. Iguazú park is beautiful, but tourists from all over the would would not visit just because the park is beautiful. They come because Devil's Throat Falls is incredible; it's among the 7 (or 8?) wonders of the natural world. Impresionante. That's the spanish word. It litereally translates as "impressive," but it conveys a little more. It's something that leaves an impression. It's something powerful enough to be impression-leaving. And that's what Devil's Throat Falls is, impresionante. When you first see it, -even when you first hear it- you feel tiny. There is so much water, and so much force, it kind of makes you feel like a potato chip under a marching band. I tried to fix my eyesight on one area at the middle of the waterfall; but I couldn't. The falling of the water literally pulls your eyesight down with the cascade. It's as if the sheer force of the water has a sort of visual gravity of its own, like a black hole. Impresionante.

Twenty gaping-mouthed minutes later Ollie, Angelo and I walk off feeling impressioned, all the way to the exit of the park. From there, pussy boy takes to planning the rest of our evening. First, we stop at a grocery store to buy vodka and coke -much cheaper alcohol than what you could buy at the hostel- and whole-wheat pasta. At the hostel we cook ourselves an Italian dinner, partly with our own food and partly with leftover stuff in the hostel fridge. The rest of the evening we spend at the computer, essentially. Ollie and Angelo are revising and re-revising their itinerary, and I play Super Mario. What a great game.

Yay for Igazú, I guess. Ciudad del Este was way cooler.