Back in Toronto

I couldn’t resist one last blog entry, for our friends in South America. We have visited many exotic and wonderful places on this trip, and our friends have asked us about Toronto.

Well, it’s snowing today, windy and cold, about -9 C. This is about the worst weather we have all year. Other parts of Canada are much colder, and get much more snow, I grew up in Montreal and Ottawa which are much worse. Winnipeg is famous for it’s horrid winters. Toronto’s weather is considered mild by Canadian standards.

Winter doesn’t officially start until Sunday (two days from now). We are expecting another dump of snow on that day to help celebrate.

But nothing to do. Bundle up, with lots of scarves and mittens, shovel out the driveway, and go downtown to do some Christmas shopping. Michelle and I were at Yonge and Bloor – the major intersection of Toronto – and it was deserted on a Friday afternoon.

On the surrounding streets, there were a few pedestrians struggling through the snowdrifts. Walking was hard because many of the sidewalks had not yet been cleared of snow.

When the weather is bad, people duck underground. There is a maze of about 30 kilometers of tunnels that connect the major buildings in downtown Toronto. If you live and work downtown, you can probably spend the entire winter without stepping outside.

The city offers a map of the underground, it’s considered a good challenge to give a tourist the map have have them navigate from one point to another – an urban form of Orienteering.  Definitely more entertaining than wandering around in a forest, and you can always stop at a nice coffee shop.

Here’s a part of the map.

Toronto in the summer is a magical place – as nice as Mendoza, as dynamic as Buenos Aires, as interesting as Cuenca. Then there is winter…

Mystery in Buenos Aires

We loved our visit to the Zoo and Botanical Gardens last Friday. But that visit also left us with excitement of a different type.

I had increasingly been complaining of exhaustion the last couple of weeks. I found myself out of breath just walking up a flight of stairs. I told myself it was because we were burning the candle at both ends – midnight dinners and early-morning Spanish lessons. Four hours of wandering around the zoo, and I was whipped.

We were packed like sardines into the subway on the way back from the Zoo, and Tom was gazing adoringly into my eyes from 3 inches away. And he noticed that the whites of my eyes had turned yellow.

My prince then sprung into action. Before you could say blue suede tango shoes, we were off to consult with Dr. Elvis at a top-notch private hospital. Our lean, tanned, polo playing (and English speaking) doctor took my medical history and then personally walked us over to the lab at the hospital next door. Much blood was drawn, and I was told that the results would be ready on Monday.

Tom went off to find a money machine so we could settle our account, and I waited at the lab. Next thing I know, the technician is running out to tell me that the doctor will come back to talk to me: DO NOT LEAVE.

Seems I had a significant shortage of red blood cells, I was seriously anemic. The reason was unknown – the rest of the tests hadn’t been processed – but the clinic wanted to transfuse me with a couple of units of blood. They would do the cross match work overnight and proceed on Saturday morning.

What to do? This was a good doctor, a good hospital. I was sick.

On the other hand, the prospect of being a patient in Spanish was more Spanish immersion than I had signed up for. The list of possible reasons for anemia are long and frightening. And if there were side-effects to the transfusion, or the cause was not readily discernible, I might not be able to get back to Canada.

And so, the next day we packed up the apartment, took the 11 hour flight home, and checked into the emergency ward at Toronto General.

A complete medical history was taken. Because we had been travelling in South America, no potential risk factor was overlooked. Each risk translated into at least one vial of blood. So if I wasn’t dangerously anemic before, I was in ever increasing peril.

“Did I go into any fresh water?” (Yes, but the fact that it had been glacial ice hours before did not seem to lessen the vial count.)

“Any adventure tourism?’ (Well, no to white-water rafting, but the mention of thermal hot springs seemed to bring a gleam to the hematologist’s eye – since when is a day at the spa considered adventure tourism?)

“Visit any tropical locations?” (No, Ecuador shares parts of the Amazon, but we were freezing our butts in the mountains. Well, let’s check for malaria anyhow.)

The hospital ran me through every test they could think of – x-rays, ultra-sounds, and a huge variety of blood tests. They quickly determined I was producing red cells properly, but that my body was destroying them.

The blood tests did not give clear cut answers. So more were ordered. Some of the tests were so rare that they would be sent for processing in Ottawa and the US. The drawers of blood were unfamiliar with them – one set of samples had to be redone three times – the last time with personal instructions from the hematologist.

Doctors were starting to compare me to a patient in the series “House”.

No one knew exactly what triggered the destruction of my blood cells, but there seemed to be fascination that my new cells were spheroid, rather than biconcave discs. Internet research that Tom did from home kept bringing up links to Bruce Bannister and some green alter-ego. I was not amused when he shifted from calling me little honey, to little hulk.

I had been checking out the wonderful shoe stores in Buenos Aires, but hadn’t yet found the perfect shoes. And I also had my eyes on a very kicky pair of high-heeled Tango shoes. Tom bought me these as a consolation prize.

And, the exciting part, I was asked to be the final exam for some med students. I hope they read comic books and watch TV, or they are doomed. (I was discharged before the exam, so it didn’t happen.)

As I write this, my hemoglobin levels are doing well. I have received two units of blood (type A+, what else) which helped get me over the hump, and my body took the sledgehammer hint and had stabilized. I’m resting at home and manufacturing new blood.

Maybe we will never know exactly what made my system go wonky. The best guess is a 24 hour flu with bad after-effects. The doctors have assigned a long medical name, translated from the Latin it means “We don’t have a clue.”

And just possibly we can blame it on the full moon. As we flew back from Buenos Aires under the full moon, my sister went into premature labour. Coincidence or cause, what pulled us home?

We will miss the sunny warm clear skies of Buenos Aires. Especially since this is what Toronto looks like today – it’s gently snowing, with another few inches of snow on the way.

So if we are a little disappointed, there are sweet pink compensations. Janine and Robertson’s first child, Nora Samantha, is beautiful and perfect.

In all, I spent four days in the hospital – 36 hours in Emergency. There is nothing that makes you more thankful for your health than being among people who are truly ill.

And no matter how sweet travel is, we are thankful for the company of friends and family.

This blog is temporarily suspended, we are back in Toronto for the foreseeable future.  You can e-mail or call us to catch up anytime, we’d love to hear from you.

Lions and Tigers and Bears

Michelle and I spent Friday morning wandering through the Buenos Aires Zoo. There is a sense of wonder in seeing all these amazing animals in one place – they can’t all be real, can they? The wildest Disney animations or Dr Seuss cartoons can’t match the colours and shapes of an ordinary day at the zoo.

This was an easy blog to write – I simply whittled a huge number of photos down to a few, and let the them speak for themselves.

As you tour with me, imagine the endless variety of other animals whose photos aren’t here. This bear has to stand in for the Black and Kodiak bears as well.

The big animals were all there – the elephants and rhinos and hippos.

And the lions and tigers and leopards. And the zebras, gnus, hyenas, gazelles, baboons, water buffalo, anteaters, alligators, and the rest of the African safari.  Both one- and two-hump camels.

A zoo isn’t the wild, but most of the animals had comfortable surroundings. I felt sad for the Polar Bear, in the heat of Buenos Aires. He had a big swimming pool and lots of shade, but it must be a bit warm for him. Other animals seemed more comfortable.

The style is to use physical barriers to hold the animals, there are very few cages (and many seemed to be to keep the humans out). For example, the chimps ‘owned’ a large island, with about 10 feet of water between them and the main zoo. The lions and tigers shared a football-sized field with wire fencing. The elephants’ field is bordered with a ditch..

Many of these ‘wild’ animals are really just big pets. People were encouraged to feed many of the animals – bags of suitable feed were sold in kiosks around the zoo, and the antelopes come running when they think someone has a handout for them. It is impossible to describe the sense of wonder on a kid’s face when a zebra eats out of his hand.

A number of animals aren’t caged at all – rabbits and ducks roam everywhere. We saw a large pheasant that seemed too have escaped from its cage. But when some children approached, it leaped 10 feet into the air and ‘flew’ back into the cage. The antelopes have a single wire at knee-height that marks out their space, that that certainly isn’t keeping them locked in. The peacocks seemed to like strutting at the zoo’s outdoor cafe.

I remember thinking how smart it was that the chimps couldn’t get across the water to the cafe – they would take it over.  The moat was protecting us from them.

There are extensive aquariums, with spectacular fish from every part of the world. This fish was gliding in a large tank with a rainbow of his carribean friends. We’ve seen them while scuba diving, but never like this – they usually sit on the reef, perfectly disguised to look like grey and brown rocks.

There were hundreds of different fishes – often sharing tanks in unusual groupings. The key determinant must be their feeding habits. The only tank that seems to have a single species held the piranhas – beautiful silver and black, innocent-looking little things.

There is a marine-land show every two hours, starring the seals. We didn’t stay for it, but we walked by the seal pool and they amused us anyhow.

The zoo also has a wonderful aviary. The aviary began just after a frameless glass balustrade ran across the perimeter of the aviary. The unquestioned star is the Condor, which delights by furling and unfurling its 12-foot wings for us.

In addition to the usual rainbow collection of tropical birds, there is also an extensive collection of raptors – owls, falcons, hawks – each more evil looking than the next.

Taking a picture like this is easy – the cage grating is large enough to pass a small camera (or just a lens). But we were not tempted to put our fingers through. This guy was about 4 feet away from me, and if he had looked in my direction, I would probably have dropped my camera in fright.

The reptile house is one of the major attractions of this zoo. It’s very hard to take photos, since the cages are darkened and behind glass. And you have to watch at 3 different windows to see the full scale of this 20-foot monster.

There was so much more. Giant turtles, penguins, tarantulas, ostriches, owls, and iguanas. It’s an endless parade.

This zoo was built in the Victorian era, and retains much of the old-fashioned flavor of that time Many of the cages have painted backdrops that harken to an earlier era, and there is delightful wrought-iron-and-glass architecture mixed with more modern facilities.

And to our delight, they have an old-fashioned calliope, with wonderful painted horses (we would have ridden on it, but we needed to be accompanied by someone under the age of 12).

For smaller kids, there is a petting zoo, where you can ride a horse and visit a barnyard. There are educational tours. Offices and labs for researchers and conservationists.

The best thing is that this huge zoo is right in the heart of Buenos Aires (in the Palermo district), steps from a subway stop and easily accessible. It’s one of many jewels of this amazing city.

Insecuridad – Street Crime in Buenos Aires

We have been repeatedly warned that Buenos Aires is a dangerous city. Kidnapping is common, pickpockets at every corner, don’t walk at night, don’t take the subway, don’t hail a taxi, don’t carry a purse, etc.

Our sense is that Buenos Aires is mostly just like any other big city (it has close to 20 million people, counting the sprawling suburbs). The newspapers always have crime stories – usually lurid and graphic – but that’s no different than at home. Tourists have to take a few precautions, and you have to be aware of your surroundings.

Pickpockets are the main hazard. The common technique is to ‘accidentally’ spray some liquid or stain on you, the person who rushes over to help wipe it off will also clear your valuables out of your pockets. Lonely Planet refers to these thieves as ‘Mustard Artists’.

We ran into a lovely couple ashore from a cruise ship who were exploring Recoleta on a Sunday morning. They were daubed with oil (the thief must have had a spray bottle), and a ‘passerby’ tried to help them wipe it off. It all happened so quickly that they didn’t have time to think. Luckily, they had their money and documents in travel wallets inside their clothes, their camera was secured on a lanyard, and they didn’t lose anything. But I’m hoping these stains came out.

Old-fashioned pickpockets are also around, and it’s not just the tourists that need to worry. Uncle Tommy tells the story of coming out of a building carrying a briefcase in one hand, and then his cell phone rang. So he pulls it out with his other hand to answer it. Both hands are full, and he’s not paying attention – he barely had time to say on the phone that he was being robbed before it was over.

Grab-and-run is the other property-crime hazard. The style for woman’s handbags in Buenos Aires is short handles, tucked high under the armpit. Satchels are strapped securely across the shoulders. Backpacks are often worn forwards across the chest in busy areas (eg: on the subway), so that you can see if someone is trying to slice them open. You never leave a bag hooked across the back of your seat in a restaurant or cafe.

In these cases, the petty thieves don’t want any trouble, and there are lots of available victims. So your risks go way down if you take a few precautions.

Most important – don’t look like a tourist. That’s probably not possible if you are 6-foot-3 and blond, but try anyhow. Tourists are the easiest pickings – they carry more cash and credit cards than locals, and probably won’t even notice that they are being robbed. And in the worst case, they are gone in a few days anyhow, unlikely to come back to testify.

If you want to look like a local: Don’t wear good jewelry – leave that wedding band at home. Don’t wear a hat (especially a Tilly hat), put the camera away, don’t hold a map in your hand. Teva’s or jogging shoes mark you as a tourist. Men don’t wear shorts here. That high-tech Cool-Max fabric might as well be logo’d with ‘Rob me, me, me! Here I am!’

Move your wallet to a front pocket. Put some money in different pockets, so you have cab fare home if you do get robbed. Don’t carry more cash than you need for the day, and leave the credit card at the hotel. Bring an extra debit card, in case you lose one. If the loss is small, then being robbed is simply an opportunity to tell a good story when you get home.

We brought some travellers cheques with us, but they are a terrible waste of time and effort. No one wants them, bank hours are tiny, and bank ATM’s are a much more convenient way to reload with cash.

The don’t-take-a-taxi story is more complicated. A few years ago, when the economy went into crisis, there was a wave of kidnappings. Most were small-scale – the victim would be driven to an ATM at gunpoint for a quick withdrawal. And in some well-publicized cases, taxi’s were used to lure unsuspecting victims – both tourists and locals.

So the advice is “Don’t use a taxi – only use a private driver.” Or variations – only use taxis that you have phoned ahead to pick you up, never hail one on the street. Never hail a taxi at night. Only use ‘Premium Taxi’ – they are the safest company (a message that is reinforced by Premium’s marketing campaign). And absolutely, positively never take a taxi from the airport.

This advice comes from well-meaning friends who never take taxis themselves. But if you don’t have a car, then taxis are a way of life here – there are more taxis here as in downtown Manhattan. They are cheap and ubiquitous.

This isn’t a taxi stand – these cabs are all occupied and on the move, they are just waiting for the light to change. There are more taxis on the cross street.

We have taken taxis everywhere we have gone in Buenos Aires, at all times of the day and night. In our experience, taxi drivers are unfailing courteous and friendly, which is amazing given the traffic conditions that they spend their day in. They have to worry more about thieves than we do.

We’ve also taken the subway. It is clean, modern, and efficient, but often over-crowded. A ride ticket is a peso (about 34 cents), you can buy a 10-ride pass for 9 pesos. The number of riders at all times of the day and night make it fairly safe.

We’ve talked to friends who live downtown – they say they have heard stories, but have never experienced or seen had any hint of a problem themselves. They consider a taxi the safest way to move around the city, and the subway an essential part of their daily life.

Outside the main ‘tourist’ areas (Palarmo, Recoleta, San Telmo, Belgrano, and the downtown), there is another problem – a more serious one. There is a particularly horrible form of crack cocaine called Paco that is available for as little as a peso per hit. It’s not cheap – you will go through a lot of hits in a day. Addicts will do anything for their next fix, usually starting by robbing their families and friends. They will scavenge anything that isn’t nailed down.

Paco addicts are not particularly a tourist problem – but they are a cause of the insecurity and high crime rate that has everyone here nervous. If you park your car on the street, it will be broken into. Your house will be broken into. We saw a statistic that 40% of Buenos Aires households were victimized by property crime in some way last year – no idea if that is true.

Those that can afford it flee the city into gated communities. Uncle Tommy lives in one. The armed guards at these communities are not the gentle, friendly folks at equivalent gated communities in the US where they casually wave you in after checking with your hosts. To enter here, you show photo id (which they log into a computer, along with your car’s license plate). When you leave, they inspect your trunk and look around the inside of your car, then verify you in the computer and log you out.

And once the wealthy are out of the day-to-day life of the city, the risks of daily city life become magnified to them. If I lived outside Toronto and watched CITY-TV every night, I wouldn’t visit my city either. The locals often are quick to tell you to be careful, but have to be pressed to tell you how wonderful and exciting Buenos Aires is.

We love Buenos Aires. We feel comfortable here. It’s one of the most wonderful cities in the world.

Tango in the Streets

Saturday, was ‘National Tango Day’. There was going to be tango in the streets on the Avenida De Mayo (one of the major downtown streets). That’s a 20 minute walk from our apartment – we couldn’t miss this.

The street had been blocked off for about 10 blocks. There were three major bandstands, one at each end and one in the middle, each with a schedule of performers. There were professional dancers.

And there were 40,000 Portenos (residents of Buenos Aires) dancing in the street.

Dancing, listening to the orchestras, drinking a coffee in one of the cafes, watching, partying. It was wall-to-wall people – all ages – having a great time.

I was cursing for having forgotten my camera. I saw someone with a nice camera, and asked if he would email me a shot of people dancing in the street. Well, I got lucky – he was Diego Ivo Piacenza, and these are his pictures. They are fantastic, and there are more of them at . (Also, prints are for sale – and I’ll happily deliver to Toronto if you order one.)

The tango orchestras harked back to an earlier era. Our experience was the clubs and cafe’s with live music – mostly ‘electronic tango’, with the musicians using the tango form of the jazz trio – wired accodian, electric keyboard, and bass.

Tonight was music from an earlier era. The orchestras were 8-10 players, with formal dress and very traditional acoustic instruments – multiple accordions, grand pianos, violins and cellos. They played the old music – songs like ‘Cambalache’ and ‘Por una Cabeza’ – from the Golden Age of tango.

There were microphones and speakers because of the venue, but you could imagine these orchestras in an old theater or ballroom, with just their acoustic power to reach the back of the halls.

This was a weekend, but every night in Buenos Aires seems to have some kind of street party. Two days later, there was a book festival that closed a different major street, and then a homage to Carlos Gardel (the greatest of the Golden Age tango singers – the Frank Sinatra of Latin America). This city never sleeps.

A Sacred Calling

I am not sure if you have to be Argentinian born to take your place as an “asador”, but judging from what we have seen in this culture of meat, there is no higher honour or calling.

We have recently partaken twice in this sacred ritual – in a private home, and in a restaurant.

In the first instance, we were invited for an asado in Pilar, a gated community about an hour’s drive from downtown Buenos Aires, at the home of a cousin of Tom’s. When we were here 9 years ago, Tom’s uncle was the asador. When he sold his home in the country, the sacred skewer was passed down to his son-in-law, Martin.

Asado is a technique for cooking meat on a grill or open fire. This isn’t a gas barbecue – the techniques that Canadian males use in the backyard to incinerate a piece of meat would horrify a true asador.

The grill is a permanent structure, built with a large grill that can be raised or lowered. A small stack of wood is gently turned into a glowing pile of coals, some distance from the grill. When the charcoal is ready, the grilling starts.

An asador will present his guests with a sequence of meats and sausages over the course of an afternoon. There is a numbing selection. First are the sausages: chorizo, blood sausage, chinchulines (intestines), and sweetbreads. Ribs are then served, followed by beef in differing cuts, goat, (maybe chicken), or maybe some lamb.

The meat for an asado is not marinated – a bit of salt is permitted, but none of the endless varieties of ‘smoked-flavor’ sauces that we North Americans use.

The distance from the coals is controlled so that the meats cook slowly; it usually takes around 2 hours to cook an asado. The coals are not placed directly under the meats so that drippings don’t cause grease flare-ups and smoke – that would spoil the flavor of the meats.

Thick slices of cheese, grilled to perfection, have an honourary place in this list of starter meats. Tom suggested that cheese could be counted as a vegetable, but ummm, no.

So you get the idea – it is about meat.

Martin and Valeria laid out a lovely table in their backyard. There was bread, so we had something to nibble on while things were cooking. There was also a small salad – put on the table like flowers for background colour. It was an incidental, a diversion to why we were really there.

There was something otherworldly and wonderful for a North American urbanite, sitting around a table for a good portion of Sunday afternoon chatting, watching the coals, and nibbling on the asado offerings as each became ready in their turn.

Wine is a necessary part of the digestion process. Martin offered a procession of different wines to his guests over the afternoon – Malbecs, Cabernets, and other lovely Argentine grapes.  We had a lovely time.

And then there is the restaurant version, with the “parilla libre” taking a good idea to excess. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat party.

Coming home from an evening Tango lesson, we dashed into what we believed to be an elegant Italian restaurant seconds ahead of a violent thunderstorm. There were no menus presented, we quickly realized by the procession of dignified servers, each bearing a sturdy skewer impaling a significant quantity of meat, that we were in an all-you-can-eat, ‘parilla libre’ asador.

We had nice steaks in Mendoza, and even a ‘mixed parilla’ – a platter of different meats and sausages to be shared at the table. But this was the real thing – carnivore heaven.

Having come this close to mecca, Tom would have used his very substantial steak knife against me if I suggested leaving, so we settled in. (Try not to visualize Homer Simpson in a donut shop.) The restaurant had a lovely salad bar with some seafood, so I was happy too.

Tom stuffed himself. And even after he ate what must have been enough for 3 people, he was trying his best not to insult any server by turning down what ever was offered. (Just a taste, a small slice, a nibble, yes please, oh yes, must try that too…)

As if offering up a penance, he only had a fruit salad for dessert.

It had been late when we arrived, and it was 1:00 AM by the time the check arrived. If you had suggested that it was a little heavy for a late dinner, the restaurant crowd would have been shocked – this is a sacred contract. The asador cooks until everyone is full and the grill is empty. Your job is to eat and enjoy.

Twice in a week though is tough, even for Tom.

Wahoo!! – Buenos Aires

Wahoo!! We’re in Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires combines the best of many cities – the energy of New York, the architecture of London, and the traffic of Bangkok. We keep trying to look in all directions at the same time. Will have lots to write about, but we’re going to start today with our apartment.

We didn’t want to live in a hotel room for two months, so we asked my uncle – ‘Big Tommy’ – to help us find a nice place to live. Well, he knocked this one out of the park.

We are in Puerto Madero, the waterfront district of Buenos Aires. It is a safe, quiet oasis in the heart of the pounding city, a 10-minute walk to San Telmo or Downtown, 20-minutes to Recoleta. It’s a bit like Battery Park City at the bottom of Manhattan.

The neighbourhood focuses inwards towards the harbour, rather than outwards to the ocean. Both sides of this harbour are lined with restaurants, cafe’s, hotels, and low-rise condo developments in converted warehouses – the developers were careful to keep the original facades and styles.

The cranes you see are the old harbour cranes for unloading ships. This harbour was a typical Argentine fiasco – it took 20 years to build, and it was obsolete by the time it opened in the early 20th century. Ships had gotten larger, and could not pass through the four dams. It was abandoned until about 1990, when the government created a company to redevelop the land.

Out of sight towards the Rio de la Plata (river), there are another legion of cranes – there must be a dozen luxury high-rise projects currently underway, some 50 stories tall (which makes them among the tallest buildings in this city). They are looking down over both the port and the large ‘Ecological Reserve’ park behind – and out to the ocean.

Many of the condo projects are affiliated with a hotel, and rented out when the owner is away. Ours is managed by the Faena-Universe, one of the three 5-star hotels in Puerto Madero, who takes care of cleaning, changing the linens, concierge services, etc.

Our little flat is about 1000 square feet of luxury everything. We’ve rearranged the living room a bit – moved out the table, rolled up the carpet, and moved the couch back. That gives us a little space to practice tango – well, it’s bigger than the dance floor at some of the clubs we’ve been to.

November was the hottest month in Buenos Aires in 50 years. It’s cooler this week, but the hot summer months are coming. I’ve been up to the roof, and it looks like we’ll be able to beat the heat just fine.

And a complete fitness center – which is good because we may have put on a bit of weight in Mendoza.

Lot’s of things we don’t like about this apartment. It’s a bit fancy to our taste, too much marble and cut glass. And lots of windows, so we have to be careful about walking around. It takes four different remotes to make all the features of the entertainment center work. But we’ll survive…

We thought we would have to get room service to deliver our morning coffee – there was no coffeemaker – but the Faena leasing agent also noticed, and just popped in with one.

We have a few friends who might be dropping in to visit over the next two months – the big couch in the living room is available.

And we are going to be having the time of our lives here in Buenos Aires.

The Trees of Mendoza

Mendoza was built on a desert. Everything that grows here is the work of man.

The first thing that strikes you when you see Mendoza is how GREEN it is. There are big trees lining both sides of every street. This is a photo of the Paseo Sarmiento, the walking street. It’s a night shot (actually around 1:00 in the morning) so the sky is black instead of a blazing blue.

We arrived in the spring, and Mendoza was already hot. Summer is upon us, and it’s getting hotter. But the streets are cool and shady. No one wears a hat here – that marks you as a tourist. Sitting out on the wide sidewalks for a meal or coffee is comfortable, and walking is a delight.

Here is a more typical daytime photo, not on any particularly interesting or busy street. If you look at the sky, the sun seems to be blazing through the trees. But look at the shadows on the road – it’s cool and comfortable to walk on.  The amazing thing is that every single street is shady.

There are parks everywhere in Mendoza. They are Disneyland verdant, with fountains and artificial lakes. And lots of shade trees.

Mendoza was built on a desert. The area was developed by farmers – mostly immigrants from Spain and Italy – who built on the ancient irrigation canals of the indigenous farmers. The fruit orchards and vineyards that circle the city are fed by this irrigation system.

The original city was flattened in an earthquake in 1861, and the new city was laid out using the same irrigation ditches as the farms surrounding it. The trees in the city are a carefully planned and nurtured crop.

There aren’t any rivers in the area – the current irrigation system taps water from the snow-covered mountains, 100 km away. Once you leave the city, you can see what the ‘natural’ vegetation looks like – scrub and tumbleweeds. There are man-made lakes in the countryside that serve as reservoirs, keeping the spring run-off until it is needed.

Water enters the city from the west (near San Martin Park), the high point. There, the irrigation canals there are wide and deep.

A series of gates allows the municipal workers to redirect the flow down and across both sides of every street in Mendoza. Every single street. On some of the bigger streets, the ditches are under the sidewalks, visible through grating (sometimes you can’t see the water, but you can hear it gurgling). Most streets simply have open ditches like this one.

When we walk to school in the morning, a few ditches will be running with water. When we walk back home after classes, the water will be running in different ditches. That night, they will be different again.

There are some practical problems – you have to be careful jaywalking across the road because you have to jump the ditches on both sides. Even at proper intersections, a misstep will drop you into a gutter – it’s almost happened to us at night.

I have no idea how handicapped people can get around here. Michelle spotted this sign for handicap unloading near a hospital, and thought it was a cruel joke – it’s a long hike to get to a ‘bridge’ at the corner where you could cross to the sidewalk.

If you have a garage or carport, you need to lay a bridge across the river running across the front of your house. You have to be careful when getting out of a parked car on the passenger side. The gutters collect debris – bottles and litter – and municipal workers are continually cleaning them out.

But the result is a ‘forest-city’ – a cool, leafy, lovely oasis of trees in the desert. It’s a miracle.

Two Naps a Day

It is getting hot in town — summer in Mendoza reaches mid 40’s, and we’re thinking about how to escape the heat. Mendoza is surrounded by mountains, and there are lovely scenic areas outside the city. So we’re hoping for a short vacation from our vacation – a night at a country lodge.

One of our key requirements for the road trip was a place with some sort of water access. This is a desert area, so we know there aren’t any big lakes – we’re thinking swimming pool.

Friends had recommended a cabina in San Raphael, but that’s at least a four hour drive – seems like a lot for a short break. So off to the travel agent we go for alternate options. They are helpful—we know just the place, they say – the Potrerillos district (just about impossible for us to pronounce).   About an hour and a half from Mendoza, deluxe cabins, swimming pool, overlooking the river, restaurants, river rafting, trekking, horseback riding, etc.

We see pictures; they nail down bus transfers, animated discussions with other agents about the various recreational options, and how to enter this vacation into the computer — 45 minutes pass sedately. One small detail, oops, when they finally call the resort, there are no vacancies. Back to the drawing board.

Next suggestion, a group of cabins close to the first, in El Salto. Again, the pictures are vetted. Yes they have a vacancy. Reservation made. OOPS. The bus that will take us there doesn’t leave Mendoza until 6:30 PM. Tom persists with our broken Spanish, we finally understand that the bus schedule changes each day – that if we go a day later then there is a morning bus.

Aside: We could hire a private driver to take us, but that would be cheating. There is some small triumph in being able to negotiate the local transport, it makes us feel less like tourists. We could also rent a car, but the local drivers are insane and traffic signals are optional. Tom won’t even discuss driving here.

I am probably as relaxed as I can be, but we have been sitting in front of this travel agent for 90 minutes, and there is no end in sight. It seems to be an unreasonable amount of time to spend arranging a two day trip. I can’t take it anymore – I leave to pick up some groceries, leaving patient Tom to arrange the return trip

Tom concludes the arrangements. We can ask the bus driver to drop us off at the door of the lodge, and wave him down the next day as he passes – door to door service. The return bus passes the hotel at 10:40 AM. No, the hotel doesn’t have a restaurant, but there is a good one across the road. With a little help from the office computer expert, the reservations are entered, and the vouchers for the hotel and buses are printed. About 3 hours hard slogging.

And so on the appointed day, we go to the bus terminal and catch the appointed bus at the appointed time. An hour and a half later, the driver drops us off at the roadside entrance to our resort.

The hotel staff were a little surprised to see us, since they had no record of this reservation. But luckily they have an empty cabina that is cleaned and available. It is lovely.

The views are spectacular. The lodge is nestled in a small valley, with mountains in every direction.

There is a fully equipped sparkling kitchen. Not a kitchenette – a full kitchen, with a barbeque for cooking a traditional parilla behind the cabina.

And they have a lovely swimming pool. Unfortunately, it is empty (we never thought to ask).

There is neither a coffee shop nor a tuck shop, and you guessed it, we did not pack a picnic basket. We figure we can live on love (and 2 apples and 2 oranges) for 24 hours, but we are close to a number of tiny towns, and it’s logical that there will be mini-markets where we can pick up some cheese and crackers.

And so we venture out. The cloudless sky is a perfect blue. We head uphill following the road in the direction of our fleeing bus. We find the horse rentals, summer camps, other hotels, and a restaurant about a kilometre and a half up the road, but no mini-market. There is a lovely restaurant, closed for the afternoon – we note it as a dinner option. We are in the middle of nowhere.

We double back and retrace the bus route the other way. We remember seeing small kiosks along the road, but some distance back. We are saved a ten km. march when the only other residents of the resort drive by, in search of similar provisions, and give us a lift.

We add some yogurt and cheese to our larder and feel much more comfortable about the state of the world. (The other couple loaded up with a mountain of barbecue meat, beer, and junk food – they may have been settling in for a seige).

When we return, we hike along the river hoping it will substitute for the sorry state of the pool. We take off our shoes and walk across it – while it is not higher than our knees, it betrays its mountain origins. This water was snow earlier in the day, and is FREEZING COLD.

Michelle the Brave (but not yet adle-brained) will not be swimming in this river.

But it’s warm, the air is fresh, the birds are chirping. And so we yield to the country. We return to the cabina and nap. We gaze at the views, and inspect our empty swimming pool. We snack on our patio and read contentedly. We nap again.

The day draws to a close, and the view from our porch turns to pink and gold.

When dinner time occurs to us (around 8:30 PM), we walk the 300 meters across the road and up a dirt path to the restaurant. It’s still closed – the chairs are still up on the tables – but we talk to the owner and he is delighted to take our order and deliver to the cabina in an hour or so when he opens. We’re happy we don’t have to make our way back by starlight. We have a romantic dinner on the porch.

We decide to stay a second night. WHAT?? you say. Well, it’s like this, we discover that the bus that will is supposed to take us back doesn’t actually pass by the resort the next day (the day we have a ticket for). It passes by a town about 3 km. from us, and we can hike there if we care to.

Or we can stay. The pool is being filled overnight. And what is our hurry?

And so we yield to the the laws of physics. We are bodies at rest, staying deeply and firmly at rest. Another two-nap day, with our only exercise being a walk out to buy more cheese and crackers (this time, directly to the nearest mini-mart).

We stroll to the restaurant up the hill for lunch. We are the only customers. Guard-dogs slept contentedly under our chairs. The clouds chase each other across the sky.

We go for a refreshing swim in the now filled pool. EEKS. It is the same temperature as the river, our lips are blue after a few minutes, but we are hearty Canadians. Poolside is warm and sunny, and we are happy.

And exactly 24 hours later than we planned, we pick up our bus back to town. A perfect mini vacation.

Sunday Outing

This is wine country. The big festival in the Mendoza area celebrates the grape harvest, or ‘Vendemia’. But it is still early summer here in Argentina – peak growing season – and we won’t be around when the harvest is brought in.

Fortunately, there was an alternate bacchanal this weekend. Familia Zuccardi, one of the largest (750ha) wineries in Maipu had its once-a-year degustacion on Sunday.

This bodega is closed to the public 364 days of the year, so when they open their gates it is a lively party. Approximately 5000 people drove out to celebrate.

The price of admission was only $25 pesos ($7) for all-you-can-eat-and-drink, but the bodega is not close to any public transit routes, which keeps out those who can’t afford alternate modes . So, it was a young, affluent crowd that formed the majority of the guests.

Thanks to the organization skills of one of the other students (from France, where else?), a group of us headed out in the comfort of a small bus. Wanting to get our full $25 pesos worth, we headed out at 11:30 with a plan to return at 6.

On arrival, we collected our sampling glass and degustacion notebook (no pencil—let’s not kid ourselves that this was serious work), and began working our way through the various tasting rooms.

There were 11 reds, 6 whites, 4 olive oils, 3 champagnes, 2 fortified wines, 1 rose on offer. Fortunately there was a lot of bread at hand to cleanse the palate, and cheese to keep the crowd standing (and round out the flavours of the wine).

But just in case you needed more sustenance, they were also sampling ice creams—vanilla with Malbec (very nice), peach with Syrah (pleasant), and pineapple with Viogner (it would have been piggy of me to try all three).

For those who do not live by wine alone, there was more hearty fare for sale..

The day was sunny, warm, and clear. The various gardens at the bodega were lovely. The organizers had laid out hay bales instead of chairs, and happy groups of tipplers perched to listen to live music.

Meanwhile, on another patio professional tango dancers variously entertained and picked out willing (and variably able) dance partners from the spectators.

Several of the group were feeling no pain by the time we found our way back to our bus at the end of the day The party continued at the house of MScott and Rachel – we didn’t go (we had committed to meeting some amigos at a Tango dancehall that night). It must have been a good time, the school was very quiet the next morning.

All and all, a successful promotional event for Zuccardi and a perfect day for us.