Friday, August 7, 2009

The Road in the Mountains

After some difficulty waking Colin up (well, actually a whole LOT of difficulty), we left our hostel in Mendoza at 7:30 in the morning on July 7th for our bus to Santiago, which was scheduled to leave at 8 AM. As it turned out, we made it there in the nick of time only to find out that the bus had been delayed about an hour. After the wait, we clamored aboard and were treated to the following sights on our 5-hour trek through the Andes, over the border to Chile, and finally into Santiago.


^^Our seats were in the first row of the upper level of the bus so we had a view out the front and the sides!^^

^^The border crossing into Chile was more like a military camp! They lined us up along a wall, brought out a drug-sniffing dog, and explained to us all the rules and regulations for entering in a stern and all-business way. We were separated from our bags, and we watch as, in the background, Chilean customs officials messed around with peoples' personal belongings, pretending to try on women's bras, etc... A man who we were sitting next to on the bus said that he had been to about 30 countries (including Israel) and that this was the most difficult border crossing ever for him.^^


^^There were points when the ski lift literally crossed over the highway!^^

^^I think the company that makes these signs must have been getting kickbacks from the government.^^

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wine Country

After about 13 hours of movie-watching, eating, sleeping, and plenty of drinking, our bus rolled into Mendoza on July 5th. Yes, the trip was quite difficult. In our Royal Suites on Cata International bus line, our trip began when the stewardess came around and offered us each a fine chocolate to begin the trip. Then, we enjoyed our choice of four movies on a flat, personal TV screen for each rider as we relaxed in our extra-wide, extra-soft, plush leather seats. When it came time for dinner, the stewardess served us each complete meals of bread and crackers, vegetables, a rice dish, a warm entree, and a desert. To complement the meal was our choice of beverage: soda, beer, red wine, or white wine (with refills of ALL of the above). Finally, as we were preparing to go to sleep for the night, we were each offered an after-dinner beverage of whiskey or chamapaign. After imbibing to our hearts' content, we reclined our seats a full 180 degrees (completely flat), pulled the curtain a full 360 degrees around each of our suites, and went to bed. The breakfast in the morning was stellar, too, but you probably get the point now.

In case you didn't get the point though, the point is that Mendoza had a lot to compete with after such an outstanding bus trip. Luckily, it was up to the challenge. As I have already said in a previous post, this was the start of a 10-day trip that I embarked on with a friend named from France named Colin who worked at my internship at Conciencia with me. Colin and I stayed at a hostel named Hostel Lao, which we absolutely loved. The owners and managers of the hostel had an asado dinner one night, and nearly EVERYBODY staying at the hostel came so we got to know quite a few good people who had previously been strangers (three of whom were even sharing our room with us!).

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself here. The first day in Mendoza (Sunday) started off with a self-guided tour of the city, I guess you might say. Colin and I rented a pair of bikes and took off on our exploration. Pictured above is a typical street in downtown Mendoza. As you can see, it is much more calm and peaceful than Buenos Aires. It also seemed, in places, to be dirtier, however. For example, note the open sewer systems on the sides of the street that run thoughout the city. These can often smell quite bad and are often full of trash.

Anyway, the main attraction for the day was the huge Parque San Martin. The park was built in 1896 and is literally almost as big as the city itself (it sits on 865 acres!). We experienced some of its nicest features including a nice lake and boathouse, a soccer stadium which was built for the 1978 World Cup, and a big hill called Cerro de la Gloria that we painstakinging rode up to view a bronze monument to the men who liberated Argentina, Chile, and Peru as well as a beautiful panoramic view of the whole city! I would be remiss if I did not mention the group exercise classes, though. As we were riding along, we heard Michael Jackson music playing from near the Rose Gardens (which didn't have any roses because it was winter). In retrospect, I guess it was foolish to think it could be anything other than a giant group of Argentinians dancing to the music of The King of Pop (especially because it was in the days immediately following his death), but in any event, that's what it turned out to be!

There was also a natural science museum and zoo located inside the park as well as numerous camping and horseback riding opportunities, but the day is only so long. Anyway, we hadn't had our afternoon coffee yet (which we had grown accustomed to in Buenos Aires), so after riding around town without any specific destination in mind, we found ourselves sitting down at a nice cafe on the main street to relax for a little while before continuing on. Our butts thanked us profusely for giving them a rest from the ultra-minimally padded seats on the bikes we had not burst our budget for.

That night, we experienced our first Mendozan wine at a really nice restaurant called La Florencia. The first thing we noticed about it is that it was really cheap. (We split a bottle for about $4 I believe, and this was a mid-range wine on the menu--not one of the cheapest.) The second thing we noticed it that it was delicious! The wine had probably been produced in one of the numerous wineries not more than 30 minutes outside of the city, which serves as one of the wine capitals of the world. The meal (and believe it or not, we did NOT order steak) was also quite good and well worth the minimal price we paid for it. We had had a long day and had done qite a bit of traveling so I went to bed fairly early that night (around 1 AM).


The next day, which was supposed to be a paragliding day, turned out to be a winery day. Excited, nervous, and probably a bit delirious, we woke up at about 7 AM, ready to run off the edge of a cliff. We were picked up by our "pilot" and tkaen out to the mountain where everything seemed to be in order. The weather was beautiful, there were only a few clouds in the sky, and there was no wind whatsoever. Except that what I described was the weather on the ground. As it turned out, there was actually quite a bit of wind up at the top of the mountain. In fact, there was so much wind that our pilot felt that it was unsafe to fly and so we were forced to stifle our boyhood dreams of flying until another occassion. Believe it or not, the disappointment at not being able to fly actually had a huge impact on us, and both of us were sour for the next couple of hours. We had mentally and physically prepared ourselves to take the leap of faith off the mountain only to find that the mountain had vanished from beneath our feet and the only thing to jump off would be a small rock by the side of the rode.

Anyway, we tried to make the most of the day, so we headed back to the bike place (much to the chagrin of our butts), to take out a couple of bikes into wine country. We ended up doing the tour of the wineries with four other people from our hostel, who we got to know well along the way as we downed Malbec after Malbec together. Three of the four wineries we toured were quite large and industrial, producing wine for major exportation around the world. It was interesting to hear about their production methods and see their ginormous barrels of wine, but something was missing from these factories. It was the human touch--something we discovered at Carmelo Patti winery. As Mr. Patti himself talked to us (a picture of him with Colin and me is below), we could see his passion and commitment and love of his work and the pride he put into each bottle of wine he produced. He showed us how each label is applied to each bottle by hand before the bottle is wiped down (also by hand) with a cloth before shipping. He also excitedly told us about instances when his wines were featured in various US publications and seemed to just be bursting with joy at each mention. Here is a good description from another blogger's website about the experience of visiting the Carmelo Patti winery:

"As we tasted the wine from his winery, Carmelo was excited to talk about his production as if it was one of his children. He described its birth and the cares he had had to take as it grew up, always alert to every detail. Already in the casks, we tasted a riper wine and its incredible assemblage, a blend of four varieties, which awakens amazing sensations as it is sampled. It is hard to describe. When I met Carmelo, my vision about wineries changed completely. I understood that there is something irreplaceable beyond technology to make a good wine: the art and the love transmitted by a good enologist."

Perhaps the best part of that day in Mendoza were some of the views we got to take in, however. Below is a picture of me with the foothills of the Andes Mountains in the background. Looking back on this photo, it seems silly to have even wasted a megabite of storage on my camera for it considering some of the views of the Andes that we would have in the upcoming days. . . . But of course I didn't know that at the time!