Knights Errant Go Home: The Retreat

Knights Errant Go Home: The Retreat

December 27, 2008

My hands went numb packing up the tent and organizing gear for the haul out to the road. Wayne was in Mendoza, which we would get to tomorrow. With a 16 mile hike in front of us, we needed and early start, especially if we wanted to out run the storm that was coming. We dropped off the duffels at the Los Puquois operation and set out, hiking with ease down what had been so tiring only a few days before.

We dropped down the slope and passed the old Plaza des Mulas, enjoying the sunny weather. Peter told stories of climbing in the Dolemites, and made them sound wonderful, to pass the time. We were on familiar ground now and knew what was coming up. Whenever this happens time seems to pass more slowly, which is either a positive or a negative. I wanted a beer and a steak sandwich, so it was definitely a negative.

We passed Ibanez and started crossing the valley which we had named Death on our way up, for there was nothing, truly nothing, that was living on its rocky, sandy floor. As far as they eye could see, there was nothing living except that which walked on two legs or flew with wings. No plants, no bugs, no rodents. Nothing.

It was with some relief that we finished off the valley and started nearing Confluenzia. Greenery came back and the harsh desert seemed almost lush in comparison with what we had just come through and with where we had been living for the last few days.

When we reached Confluenzia we took a break and rested, for we now had to deal with the last climb of the trip: Down to the river and then back up. Normally this would be a very easy thing to do, but Kevin and Peter had been on top of a 23,000 foot mountain just two days ago and everything seemed just a bit more difficult.

Urging us on, however, was the sight behind us. While we were walking toward sunshine, we were running from the storm, which was trying its best to come down the valley and grab us. After crossing the river and climbing up the other side the storm got to us, bringing high wind and a few drops of rain. We stopped inside the Los Puquois dinner tent to get into what rain gear we had and then set out in a race with the storm.

As far as storms go, this one wasn't too bad. It held off for a while, with only light rain, and allowed us to get down most of the mountain before it finally opened up on us, with high, chill winds and heavy rain. My hands went numb once again and I realized that I was hiking hard not only to get down the mountain faster, but also to keep my body heat up. Kevin and Peter were doing the same thing.

After forty five minutes of howling rain, the storm abated and gave us a soft misty rain for the remaining fifteen minutes out to the road. Kevin and I took a short cut across a marshy, swampy tract of land, hopping from rock to rock and got to the ranger station at the road a full fifteen minutes before Peter arrived. Of course, it stopped raining when we got to the station and the sun was even shining just a bit lower down at Puente del Inca.

After checking out from the park the Los Puquois van fetched us and dropped us off at the hostel in town, where we got the same room we had on our way in. Kevin wanted a shower before anything else, but Peter and I had food on our minds. Outside of the hostel was a joint with just enough shackiness in it to give it the right atmosphere. Hard, heavy metal pumped out of the speakers as Peter and I ordered steak sandwiches and beers. And it kept thumping as the one-man crew cooked us up a second round.

Kevin showed and Peter left to take his own shower. I drank more beer and rubbed my well fed belly as Kevin ate and we chatted. If I could have done it, I would have had another three of the lomitos, but each was substantial enough, especially after a diet of dehydrated dinners, that I just didn't have the room for them. But beer is liquid and can slip through the cracks to fill the spaces in between. It was good to be down from the mountain.

December 28, 2008 - January 3, 2009

We had a week on our hands before the flight home and no real intention of working harder than absolutely necessary. Some people might think that spending a week living a life of dulce far niente would be boring, or worse, a waste of time. But those are only the stupid people in the world and they don't count. Rather than trying to give a day by day account, which would eventually bore even the most dedicated of readers, I'll try to give a sampling of what happened. The day after we got to Puente del Inca we took the bus back to Mendoza.

Our lives revolved around a few basic activities, the most central one being the evening meal. Only the slow witted (or Australian, which is about the same thing, except the slow witted have a certain charm to them) try to eat in Mendoza before the sun goes down. Ideally, you wait until 9:30 or 10 in the evening before starting your dinner, which lasts for some time if you do it right.

But starting a story with the end of the day isn't the way that things are done, so I'll have to back up to the start of the day. After a casual snoozing until 9 or 10 am, the day would start with a short stroll to a local cafe for coffee and a little bite to eat. I learned quickly that the Argentine notion of a cappuccino isn't the same as what we get in the States and stuck with ordering straight espresso with ham and cheese toast. Kevin, being more feminine, liked the Argentine version of cappuccino. The below photo isn't Kevin drinking a coffee, but anyone who orders a strawberry daiquiri must have an excess of estrogen.

Or maybe not. Kevin is quite the ladies man and had to fend off the local women with a piece of rusty pipe we found.

But when we went to the grocery store he was very interested in trying some of the local folk remedies. He didn't bother to tell us what he was trying to fix, but I bet the Gremlin's Mom could.

But back to the story of our idle in Mendoza. After breakfast we would normally wander about aimlessly for an hour and then go to lunch with the rest of Mendoza. Lunch is an important affair because after it comes the daily siesta, which has to be one of the main signs of cultural superiority. Here is Peter and the remnants of the lomito completo that I was about to finish. Notice the mug of beer. No lunch was complete without a liter each.

All of Mendoza, it seemed, went out to eat in the outdoor cafes that were concentrated in a few areas. Though there were tourists around as well, the majority of diners were local. Every table had a liter or two of Andes beer, or perhaps some wine, and lunch lasted for at least an hour, sometimes two. David and Joel, two Swedes who we met on the mountain, summitted Aconcagua the day after Peter and Kevin did and we met up with them in Mendoza for a lot of meals.

They told a lot of funny stories during our lunches and dinners together, especially about how beautiful the women of Sweden were. I suppose everyone thinks their own women to be the most beautiful, but Kevin, Wayne, and I all agreed that we'd swap the women in Tacoma for the women in Mendoza. Except the Gremlin's Mom. They also filled us in on the Swedish way to drink a screwdriver. Order a glass of vodka and a glass of orange juice. Drink the vodka. Look at the orange juice.

With lunch finished and a liter or two of beer in each of us, it was time for ice cream. We took our pre-siesta ice cream seriously, as the Argentine notion of that frozen treat was one of the great surprises of the trip. It helped that the ice cream shop was across the street from the hostel.

There were approximately fifty flavors to choose from. Banana, whiskey orange, blackberry, strawberry, coconut, cinnamon, watermelon, melon, pina colada, six versions of dulce de leche. I didn't even get around to trying all any of the chocolate based ones. Ice cream in hand, we'd retired to the hostel for siesta.

Next to dinner, siesta is the most important time of the day. Most shops close at 2 pm and re-open at 5 pm. The streets empty and even the traffic dies down. After consuming ice cream a short nap was called for, especially as it was the hottest time of the day. But by 3 one or all of us was usually up and about, drinking ice cold Andes beer. Andes is made locally and when any of us would try to order a different beer, especially one made in Buenos Aires, we would usually be told in broken English, "No, no. You want Andes beer." All the restaurants and cafes had large selections of beers, but we drank only Andes. For variety, we would occasionally go down to the Chopp and Dog, a fine establishment around the corner from the hostel, for beer.

Normally a second nap would be called for as after drinking two liters of beer one becomes sleepy. And so 6-7 was also siesta time. The evening was now beginning and the streets started to become more populated. By 9, after having a pre-dinner bottle of wine, we would begin the slow meander to our favorite row of outdoor restaurants specializing in grilled meat in general and steak in particular. The streets would be full of Argentines of all ages, including lots of small children. The below photo has nothing to do with small children, but I like it anyways. Why aren't our banks pretty like this?

Some times we had a large group, as in the below photo. You can see Wayne, Peter, David, and Joel, with Kevin hiding behind Peter. Near Joel are three Brits that Wayne made friends with and were involved in a really twisted love triangle that ended badly.

I don't have a story for this, but it is a good picture of Wayne, even with his red eyes. Wayne is definitely going to hell and perhaps the red coming out of his eyes is a reflection of the hell fire that will burn him in the future.

One of our favorite establishments was Senor Buque, which had the largest steak we found on the menu: The Baby Beef, an 800 gram monster. Of course, we had to try it.

We learned quickly that when you order a dish, all you get is the dish. If you want something to accompany it, like salad, potatoes, or a vegetable (potatoes are the only vegetable you're likely to get), then you need to ask for it. I was feeling confident, so I got a side of fried potatoes with my Baby Beef.

Wayne went just for the steak, though. The Baby Beef was tender enough to cut with a fork, yet unlike Filet Mignon had flavor to it. The chefs at Senor Buque didn't need to do anything fancy to it to make it taste good. There was no special sauce or exotic rub. Salt, pepper, and a wood fired grill. This was true of all the Argentine beef that we had during our stay, but the Baby Beef was singularly perfect.

At home I never get a steak at a restaurant and I cook one at home perhaps twice a year. Steak just isn't my thing. But things are entirely different in Argentina, where the cuts of beef don't correspond at all with what we have. The beef tastes different, perhaps because the cattle are fed different food.

Although the range of Argentine cuisine, at least in Mendoza, didn't extend terribly far, and couldn't hold a candle to the Thai, they did have the best steak I'd even had and I can't imagine ever having steak in the States again: It just wouldn't be the same.

After dinner, which would be around midnight or 12:30 am, I'd drag myself back the ice cream shop for another fix (they didn't close until around 3 am). However, I did make a foray out with the others to sample some of the night life that Mendoza had to offer. Kevin and Wayne were more sociable than I and have many stories from the clubs, but they can tell them at their own risk. During the climb Peter, a German who doesn't like beer, kept going on and on about a fabulous mixed drink called a caparinia. The best cocktail in the world, he assured us. And so one night I let myself get dragged out to where tourists get drunk and locals come to gawk and we all had a caparinia. It was the worst cocktail ever. Its one saving grace was that it was strong. Here is David slugging one back. I suppose that raw spirits, sugar, and lime could be made better, but I don't know how.

The walk back to the hostel from the various restaurants always took us through the park in the early morning hours. Families and little kids would still be out and about, even at 3 am. This is the fancy hotel in town., all lit up with the night lights. I took this picture hand held and it shows off how far in-camera stabilization has gotten. The picture is definitely blurry, but that is hard to tell at this magnification.

On New Years Even the routine got interrupted just a tad because Argentine's don't seem to celebrate it like American's do. Rather than having a big party in the street, Mendozans seem to stay at home with family, with some going to trendy clubs. I hate trendy clubs and was happy to hang out at the Chopp and Dog, which was one of the few restaurants that was open at night.

I'm not sure why Kevin looks the way he does, but I think he is jealous of the steak that I'm eating, whereas he only has a piece of bread. The Chopp and Dog is a cheap place (chopp, by the way, is a word for a certain beer glass), but even here the steak was better than anything I'd had in the US. And it came with a fried egg on top!

The picture below doesn't add anything to the story and probably detracts from it, but I wanted more photographic evidence that Wayne is definitely going to hell. Plus, it is another goofy picture of Kevin who is happy once more.

After dinner we retired to the roof of the hostel to have a few drinks with yet another crew of Swedes we met, along with some local women we met. The Swede's had a candy that they brought from home and were just crazy about.

Kevin didn't think it was so good: It was salty black licorice.

Wayne drank most of a bottle of Breeder's Choice whiskey. High class stuff, but he seemed to like it just fine.

One of the women we met was the sister of one of the people who worked at the hostel. She brought three of her friends as well, which worked out nicely. Here is the lovely Mercedes, who is a psychologist by training. She was heading off to Paris to work in a clinic.

Wayne went down around 4 am, leaving just Kevin, myself, the ladies, and a communist, who was dating, yet also not dating, Ivana, one of the women. Here is El Che:

And lastly a final shot of the whiskey and the ladies, with Mercedes on the left and Ivana on the right. I don't remember the other names, but one of them is Celeste. The ladies have just sampled the Swedish candy, with fairly predictable results. At 6 am a couple more Mendozans showed up and invited us out to another party, but no one was really interested. It wasn't until 8 am that the party on the roof finally broke up.

The end of the party wasn't the end of our time in Argentina, for we still had a few more days left before having to board a plane and return to the stupefying normalcy of jobs, schedules, and non-steak dinners. But this is a good place to end the narrative and put another winter vacation to rest.