I didn’t realize that living in Argentina would be such a distinctive schedule change. In the U.S., I grab eat dinner at 6pm and go to sleep at midnight at the latest. Here in Mendoza, I am nocturnal. I eat dinner with my host sisters at 10:30pm on a typical Friday night. Maggie is the chef, I set the table, and Josephina does the dishes.
“Emiiii! Ya comemos!” I scamper to the table from my room in the patio, stomach rumbling, nearly tripping over our mischievous jet-black puppy, Cuco. We are supposedly Cuco’s ‘foster family’ but I have a feeling that he isn’t going anywhere. My host sisters are enamored by him even though he is a cachorro or ‘street dog.’ As I set the table, I catch a whiff of what Maggie creaks out of the oven… some type of veggie ‘torta’: undistinguishable but always delicious.
“Coca?” Maggie offers. “No gracias.” The dinner staple, Coca-Cola, is an obsession here in Argentina. It is not only consider it the ‘cool’ pop to drink but is also marketed as the drink that every ‘family enjoys together’ appealing to Argentina’s strong familial culture. My sisters drink it at nearly every meal.
I’ve been living here in Mendoza for approximately three months. I’m not fluent, but I’m accustomed to living and breathing Spanish 24/7. I love the simultaneous warmth and frankness of the culture. It’s common to greet people by “un beso” or kiss on the cheek in any circumstance – even between sweaty regulars at the gym. The plazas are chock full of public displays of affection. When you’re invited for a cafecito at the café-resto-bar, expect to sit and talk for hours. Argentines are frank. Both blatant staring while walking down the street as well as piropos (catcalls) are not seen as rude. My host sisters had no qualms about talking about sex, politics, or other taboo topics. Many of these social differences lie directly in the language itself. At the end of writing a message or text, regardless of who you are writing to, Argentines say “besos!” instead of “bye!” Literally “kisses!” It was a little shocking when my boss at the wine magazine said “Besos!” at the end of her work emails. I think it demonstrates the warmth of the culture.
“By the way, I think I’m going to go backpacking at Parque Aconcagua this weekend…” I say in castellano. This was definitely a last minute decision. When my friends invited me to join them in backpacking around the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, who was I to say no? I’d grown used to making spur-of-the-moment plans in Argentina: they always turned out to be the best.
After a break-of-dawn four hour bus ride slicing through the increasingly vast mountains, we were dropped off at a minuscule ski town consisting of a dozen buildings in a valley called Puente del Inca with our mammoth packs stuffed to the brim with supplies for the next few days. Carrying everything you need to survive on your back gives you the biggest impression of self-sufficiency. (Well, until you start running out of water) We had plans to hike around Parque Provincial Aconcagua, camp at Confluencia (3.300m), and day hike from there to the Plaza Francia Base Camp (4.254m). We ended up setting out on a path completely different from the one Emily had planned because technically “hiking” season is over in that part of the Andes.
Nonetheless, it couldn’t have been more beautiful. Throughout the weekend we cooked on my friend Emily’s handy little individual REI stove. Life when backpacking is so prosaically simple – all signs of civilization are stripped away. It’s just you, your companions, your basic needs, and the beauty of nature.
It was great to get to know my companions – we soon found that we are kindred adventurers. We laughed and sang all the way through the mountain passes, which reminded us so of New Zealand’s Middle Earth that we felt like we were on a journey to Mordor. We called ourselves the “Fellowship of the Mountain Goats” and referenced Lord of the Rings more than is socially acceptable.
During our backpacking trip, I also fantasized about traveling in general. Mendoza is a comfortable city. Increasingly I feel like I could absolutely take a year teach English in South Korea. I would have never considered doing anything like that before. I am learning that nothing is impossible and no travel is too far or too long when you work hard enough and when you have a flexible attitude. If my semester in Argentina teaches me anything, it’s that there are so many intriguing places and cultures out there that are just waiting to be explored. The other great thing about traveling, though, is realizing that we’re not so different after all.