Week 1 in Argentina: Stealing, Skiing and some Sharades

The first of my six weeks in Argentina was, well, let’s say interesting… for now. I’m writing this in a bus from Bariloche to Mendoza, three hours into a 19 hour journey. Outside an unreal beautiful landscape passes by. A big dark blue river connects what seems to be a cascade of lakes, or just one very big one, surrounded by brown hills, partly turned white by the snow that fell last night and contrasts with green and red trees and archaic stone formations from yellow to red. The blue sky is freckled with white clouds, sometimes darkening, sometimes enlightended by the bright sunlight. No signs of civilisation, except for the curvey road and little estancias every few kilometres. On the horizon the whole picture is framed by the snow-covered mountains around Bariloche where I went skiing the day before. The bus is almost empty, I have room to spread out and jump from window to window looking for the best photos, the rich landscape in the west and the brown empty, seemingly endless flat area in the east.

Bariloche to Mendoza, Argentina

Looking out of the bus-window

Endless road to perdition

I left Bariloche after two great days, which reconciled me with everything, after the troubling days before. But let me start at the beginning. There is not much to say about the journey to Buenos Aires. I spent two hours of the six hour stopover in London in the subway to have two hours to run around in the city, where I saw Picadilly Circus and the Buckingham Palace, surrounded by hundreds of tourists who were more interested in the weirdly dressed Brits who left the Palace after probably attending some strange ancient ritual than in the building itself. I strolled through Hyde Park, crossed the Thames and took pictures of Westminster. I sat next to a friendly englishman with Indian roots, who now lives in Buenos Aires and gave me not only the first important tips, but also some change for the bus. Eventually I arrived, just 20 minutes later than planned in Argentina. My luggage had found its way too and soon I was sitting in the bus towards the centre. The two hours in that bus gave me the first impression of Argentina. After leaving the airport almost empty it rapidly filled up on its way through the suburbs. I was surrounded by Spanish speaking Argentinians of all ages. By the time I arrived at the hostel I was accustomed with not understanding a single world the people around me were saying. The journey went by fast, although, driving down one street for an hour, with numbers as high as 10212 (and I was told the street continues to over 16000) while knowing your stop is somewhere around number 300 is a little bit demoralizing.

However, I made it to the hostel, found a little Chinese super mercado after only an hour running circles (and I haven’t seen a single ‘big’ supermarket in my three days in BA), ate some pasta at the hostel, fell into bed and slept till the next morning.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Working in a megacity

I spent two nights in Buenos Aires, saw the harbour, the Museum of Fine Arts, a lot of the inner city, a concert of a local band in the hostel and a strange exhibition that showed pictures of naked South American men in their work surroundings (Fortunately there also was an exhibition of contemporary news photographies, including those of the riots in 2006 at Placa del Mayo, which I had visited a couple of hours before, when a late Chunta-related court case took place). I spent some time alone, some with my friend Flora and her Argentinian boyfriend Rafael and met some interesting people at the hostel, including an Austrian couple who had been travelling for over six month, with three still ahead. By the way, if you ever go to BA, the Art Factory in San Telmo is a very nice place to stay.

Never trust the Swiss

Anyway, it was the last encounter in BA that should dominate the days ahead. On my way to the station Retiro for the bus that would take me down to the Peninsula Valdez to watch whales, I asked a cab driver for the way. I knew I wasn’t far away, so I resisted his attempts to get me in his cab, when a guy approached me in German. He asked me if I was Swiss and offered his help. He told me he was from Chile, had Swiss roots and works as a tourist guide, while he walked me to the bus station and showed me my platform. Finally he gave me the advice to take enough money with me. I took the maximum 600 pesos (about €120) from an ATM. I only had five minutes until my bus left, so I put the money in one of my bags and hurried to the bathroom. By now the familiar language, his friendly behaviour, his knowledge about the places I was going and the exchange of email-addresses made me trust the Swiss guy enough to leave my bags with him, not even thinking of the money. Not surprisingly, otherwise I wouldn’t tell the story, when I came back my friendly friend was gone. And my money with him.

The next 20 hours in the bus I kicked myself for those five minutes.

And this wasn’t the end of my troubles. I arrived in Puerto Madryn with only 20 pesos and 15 euros in my pocket. I paid for the bus to Puerto Pyramides, where all the whale-watching tours start with my credit card. Well, I didn’t know that Puerto Pyramides is in a nature reserve park and that I had to pay 45 pesos admission after half the way. Fortunately a German girl who was sitting behind me could help me out and changed my last euros to pesos. The next problem was to pay for the whale-watching trip. The only ATM in town wouldn’t give me any money, so I tried one company after another, looking for one that would accept my master card. Without success. Eventually a man at the last company I could find felt bad for me and came up with a way to pay. After the trip he walked me to the petrol station, which accepts credit cards and I paid there. The trip itself was amazing. Penguins and sea-lions on the way out of the bay and finally whales. Some rather motionless, floating through the water, one almost frantic, lifting two thirds of his massive body out of the water, rotating and falling back into the water with a huge splash, again and again for nearly half an hour. Sometimes we cames as close as five meters to these gigantic creatures.

On the way back to Puerto Madryn my money problems continued when I found out that my bus ticket wasn’t valid for the return and had to convince the driver to take me anyway. Without a shared language not that easy.

Peninsula Valdez, Argentina

Worth all the trouble

Kafka would have cried

From Puerto Madryn I took the next overnight bus to Bariloche, a village that looks like Switzerland, and is full of ski-tourists, chocolate shops and dogs. Two Saint Bernards with tiny rum barrels around their neck on the main square and stray dogs everywhere, in front of shops, in elevators and even in the foyers of banks, where you can get money if the bank is closed. My first task here: get money. I checked my account online at my hostel and asked for the way to a bank. The first I found was a Swiss bank and I tried its ATM (maybe not that smart if I had remembered my last encounter with something related to that country). Everthing was fine, until it was time to give me the money. The machine told me about technical difficulties and asked me to try again later. I pressed the button to get my card back and nothing happened. A message about authentification problems flashed up and disappeared again. There I was, still no money and now even no card. Fortunately the girls at my hostel (another great place, Hostel 1004 in an apartment block near the main square) felt sorry for me and accepted that I couldn’t pay in advance.

The next morning I returned to the bank looking to get my card back. The woman at the counter smiled and told me to come back at the next morning because the machine would be ‘closed’. I was confused, didn’t they have a key? She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. I tried to argue: I need the card to get money. She smiled and shrugged. I need to pay for food. She smiled and shrugged. I need money to pay for my hostel. She smiled and … you get the picture. By now I had turned up my volume. After constantly worrying about money for two days and eating nothing than a pack of chocolate chip cookies and a pack of crackers I was pissed. I demanded to talk to someone else. The friendly woman stopped smiling, turned around and said two Spanish sentences to a guy behind her. He left the bank towards the foyer, she asked me to wait for a moment and turned to the next customer. I looked around the room, outraged and looking for sympathy in the faces of the people around me. And waited. Two minutes later the guy returned, gave something to the woman and she waved me back to the counter. Her smile had returned, she put my card in front of me and said good bye. I was speechless. After a moment of staring at each other I asked her why the machine had kept my card. She smiled and … I raised my voice again. What if it happens again? She told me not to use the card in Argentina, without even a hint of a smile. I was speechless for the second time, then started repeating everything I had already said. Money, food, hostel. She shrugged again, her smile gone for good. Again I demanded to talk to someone else. Visibly happy to get rid of me she sent me to the next counter, where I found myself facing another smiling face, this time a man, who stopped my angry speech with a short ‘No ingles!’. I don’t even remember how I made him understand my problem, but finally he looked at my card and told me that the ATM didn’t like my chip. I shouldn’t use the card in their bank, but every other ATM should work. I left the bank speechless. The next bank, the next ATM and everything was back to normal. I finally had money.

I bought food, payed my hostel and decided to try a fresh start. I spent the rest of the day on a seven hour hike to Cerro Otto and back to the hostel. Walking in the sun through snow and mud really cleared my mind of the troubles of the last days.

Cerro Cathedral, Argentina

Skiing with a view

The Happy End

The next day I got up early to take the bus to Cerro Cathedral, the biggest ski-area in Argentina. I had a great day, although it took a while until I found back on ski-tracks. A little bit of my fatalistic mood came back when I got stuck on the lift for about 40 minutes while going down to return the rented gear. But everything went alright. Back in the hostel the staff prepared a meat and wine-dinner for everyone who wanted to participate (and paid the 20 pesos). Blood and other sausages, steaks and ribs. Pure, without ketchup, BBQ-Sauce or other knickknack. And it was great. After that an international round of sharade started. People from almost every country of Central America, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Argentina and Brasil spent hours to explain and act out the weirdest things. It was a great finish for the one week roller coaster ride that started in a huge city, continued with whale-watching and ended with hiking and skiing.

The next morning, on a perfect day for skiing when everyone else headed towards Cerro Cathedral, I boarded the bus to Mendoza, on my way to the biggest mountain in South America, 6962m high Aconcagua, and into my second week in Argentina.

P.S.: During the meat-dinner a Swiss guy sat next to me (and I didn’t run away screaming, which I’m very proud of) and when I told him about the guy in BA his face lightened up. Apparently he had met him too, near the train station in BA. The guy gave him tips for his travelling while having some coffee together. He gave him the same email-address he gave me and at a second encounter told him to get money before he leaves BA. Then he offered him to change the money at the black market to Chilenian pesos, thereby saving 20 per cent. He just had to give him the money and wait in the coffeeshop. Fortunately he didn’t fall for such a blunt trick.

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