“Four weeks in Argentina”
1. that our rudimentary Spanish was far from adequate,
2. that when they say it is hot they mean HOT, and
3. the national bus system is much better than the train system.
It was SERVAS hosts who taught us many things important to the people that are not mentioned in Lonely Planet.
We were fortunate to be greeted on our first day in Buenos Aires by Ana Manghi and Hernan Ferriero.
Finding an address in Buenos Aires (a city of 10 million) is a challenge on the best of days, let alone when burdened with luggage and 95 F degrees (uncharacteristically hot, they said). Tom was granted honorary “porteno “status when presented with his first cup of MATE, the national drink of Argentina. We talked books, politics, and rock & roll and they let us sleep in!
From our first host, we learned that people newly introduced to you will kiss you on your right cheek (not the left) and expect one back – – men, women, teen boys, children will do this on the bus, on the playground, in a shop, everywhere. A simple nod of affirmation and recognition with eye contact goes a long way, as well. We adapted to the distinct argentine Spanish with soft sounds and rapid easy flow. We learned to pronounce the “ll” in words as “sh” For example, Castillo Street is “Casti sho” street. Ella (she) is pronounced “Aye sha” in Argentina.
When we took the bus across the Andes into Chile, we learned that not all of South America is hot. Torrential rains greeted us in very green Puerto Varas and continued for three days. We were grateful to see the German style town in the sun on that last day.
The overnight bus to Santiago, Chile, placed us within a mile or two of the central hotel area of the mega city. We learned: Make prior hotel arrangements during the summer season. A Departmento hotel with kitchen is a good home base to operate from for 3 or 4 days. Thank you, Internet!
We learned that Chileans and Argentines often go on vacation in January and/or February. As a result, we were unable to find an overnight host in Chile. We were blessed with a knowledgeable, generous day host, Joel Poblate, who arranged for a personal tour of the Municipal Theater, a jewel of a Teatro, complete with red velvet chairs and an extensive season of opera, ballet, and concerts. Joel escorted us and his SERVAS guest from Denmark to the Central Market for lunch. Later he gave us a brief history of the capital at the historic government square, once bombed by its own military forces. We learned: A day host can be every bit as helpful and engaging as an overnight host. Joel told us that Santiago was also uncharacteristically hot.
The next leg of our “great circle” took us back to Argentina over those always magical Andes Mountains. Mendoza,Cordoba, and then Rosario in central Argentina, again by safe and comfortable bus (16 hours in all).
Our local cell phone did not work with the numbers we had. So we found our SERVAS host via city bus and were thrilled when she returned home within an hour of our arrival. Laura Girbel, a professional English translator, and her partner Hernan, owner of a SuperKiosko, were fluent in English.
They mentioned that Cordoba was unusually hot and humid.
This pair of hosts asked us the travelers’ favorite questions: “Would you like a cup of coffee (tea, water, cold beer, etc)” and “do you want to do any laundry.” They added another important question: “would you like to have a swim in the pool on the roof.” Oh yes, most definitely.
Our favorite memory of Cordoba is the family asado thrown in our honor. Usually held on a Sunday afternoon, Herman lovingly prepared the coals for the wonderful family meal on a Thursday evening. Our host’s sisters, parents, and a fiancé all attended this late night affair even though all had to rise early the next day. We learned: Mendoza wine and grass feed beef with a loving family is the soul of this country and its people.
We returned to Buenos Aires to be tourists for a bit and experienced the marvelous Teatro Colon, Tigre (up river from Buenos Aires, and the redeveloped Puerto Madera. Then we headed to the south Atlantic coast resort town Mar del Plata. Why? There were SERVAS hosts there who WMT (want more travelers). What more reason does one need? The five-hour bus ride was well worth the effort. Being one day early and unable to successfully call our host, we put in to a hotel and then took a taxi to the address we had the next morning. We learned: Taking a taxi can save you frustration and time.
After a few minutes of anxiety, the big door opens and we get the air kiss on the right cheek! All is well. We learn our hosts’ schedule and are offered lunch. Now in our 4th week of travel, we welcomed the invitation to join Carmen and Daniel Berterini for a visit to the beach and the silky water of the Atlantic Sur.
Our hosts work mornings and every evening from 9 pm to Midnight in their film shops in the peak tourist season, yet made time for us too. While they earned a living, we joined the Argentines at play and toured the town (over 1 million residents), strolled the Playa, listened to the folk dance bands, and tried to pick up the dance steps. Driving home and sharing a late meal with our hosts gives us chance to talk about local economy, their experience in Miami and Spain, how the absence of mortgage lending frustrates housing for many, insights into world and American politics, and the insanity of war.
Our hosts assured us that the weather was unusually hot and humid. They did appreciate the thunder, lightning, and heavy rain we brought with us. Our warm and welcoming hosts were not content to send us off into the torrential rains, but rather delivered us personally to the bus station with a sincere air kiss.
At first we were like two lost souls who could not even manage the ticket machine or follow simple instructions. It was amazing how many local people wanted to talk with us in Spanish or English and cheered our efforts. We thanked the many bus riders and drivers for helping us. They seemed to understand that we used the city bus to discover the people. Servas touristas come to meet the people
Try to learn at least: the numbers in the local language, verbs “I/we want, need, have; please, thank you, please write it for me, and “pleased to meet you.” These are all very useful when you need to negotiate food, transport, hotels, money exchange, and finding a bathroom. The rest you can often manage with gestures and a smile.
Be careful when walking. Drivers do not stop for you (in crosswalks or not), even if you use a cane!
Be careful of your valuables. Handle your cash and passport only in a protected situation.
The Argentine driver is a fanatic for cars and all things automotive especially in Mendosa and Cordoba. Tires, parts, and accessories shops are everywhere. Argentina has modern gas stations as well as the infrastructure for GNC (clean burning natural gas) as a economical automotive fuel. But when you travel off the beaten path you will find “classicos”, that is,US Detroit cars from the 1950’s in show room condition. One sees many Ford Falcons and Novas from the 60s as well as the French CV#3 and Italian cars. Tom felt like he was back in the southern California of his youth.
These 2nd and 3rdh generation European immigrants are familiar to us in the US: Italians, Irish, Jews, Germans, Welsh and English, Scandinavians and Spaniards. The Servas hosts we met are educated, aware and compassionate. Remember they are also Americans. Proud and protective of family, friends and guests. Ready to denounce governments and moneyed interests; and all who enable injustice and the reckless waste of lives and environments. Yet, the people aspire to noble possibilities.
To travel in this spectacular country and to be hosted by these representatives of a complex and proud society is a gift and honor. The history of Argentina is a lesson for us all and its courageous people is an example for us to admire.