Feb 17, 2006

An Abrupt Absence of Andes

    I feel at home in the mountains. Even when they are exotic and in the opposite hemisphere to those I learned to love as a child. That probably has something to do with why I've spent over 3 months of this trip in the Andes. We entered the Andes as we roared out of Colombia into Ecuador and kept our altitude high throughout most of that country, Peru, Bolivia, and even into Argentina. I've been reluctant to leave the thin air, but as our flight out is from the sea level its due to happen sooner or later. Fortunately we found a spectacular way to leave the mountains behind. Pato, a British friend Tom, and I abandoned the buses and rode bicycles the last 50Km out of the mountains. Quebrada de Cafayate is a national park we passed through on our way to Cafayate. We rented bikes, and hopped off the bus at the top of the park and zipped through the (mostly downhill) fifty kilometers of a surreal landscape.

    Cafayate itself is a city where the Andes shrink from mountains to hills to a deep flat valley. The valley itself has a hot and dry, climate ideally suited to growing grapes so its major industry is wine. It is said (by locals) that Mendoza is known for making most of Argentinas wine but that Cafayate makes the best wine. Not to be remiss in my responsibilities I sampled the wares. A lot of wares. We went from vineyard to vineyard getting tours of the vineyards, the process the little bar in the end where they gave us free samples. Being all very respectable they provided places to spit it out after tasting it so one doesn't get intoxicated. Have no fear, my dear reader, I most certainly did not spit.

    It wasn't all bike riding and wine, there was music and dancing too! Pato, it turns out, is a big fan of traditional music. So, while travelling together we inevitably end up at places called peñas. It's somewhere between a folk concert, and dinner at a nice restaurant with a dash of dance club thrown in if the mood is right. While eating dinner a succession of groups playing traditional ballads come on to perform with music, stories, and sometimes professional dancers. It's a lot of fun and as the night winds on often the crowd joins in the festivities and hops on the dance floor for some bailando!

    Interest in slow traditional music is by no means limited to older people in Argentina. I was repeatedly surprised to be at peñas where, at 28, I was older than average. Hippies and partiers who looked like they should be going to a techno dance party sat smiling listening slow ancient ballads. Knowing that, its little surprise that Los Divideros Divididos, one of the top rock bands in Argentina blends traditional lyrics and melodies into their hard driving sound. An it's no further surprise that upon hearing the Divideros were giving a free concert in a tiny town called Amaicha del Valle nearby that we hightailed there. It was a GREAT show.

    Slowed only slightly we continued our quest for wine across the wide plains on our way to Mendoza. Argentina, much like the US, is blessed with huge wide open grasslands. Perhaps not as visually stunning as mountains the plains, known here as Pampas, are invaluable for growing food. The Pampas are how Argentina became legendary for beef, feeds itself and exports food, and even produced it's own brand of cowboy. And Argentinian cowboy, called a Gaucho, roamed the Pampas on horseback weilding bolas (weights attached to a rope, thrown to tangle the feet of their target) where American cowboys used lassos. Both cowboys and Gauchos play a cherished role in their respective countries both as what little boys aspire to be and how the country sees itself. Both are legendary for their personal independence, courage, skills on horseback, hard living, and sad romantic songs. It's a reputation well earned by some and abused by others.

Lucas, the Gaucho

    It is often said that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it but that's only half the story. Some who know go to great lengths to repeat it. George Bush Jr. has a degree in history so it's likely he knows the story of Juan Manuel de Rosas ; a man who had a similar trajectory to power 170 years ago as he has now.
In the 1820s Argentina struggled to find balance between its strong central government based out of Buenos Aires, and the desire of the more scattered rural people to have a more decentralized system sharing power throughout the country. Rosas carefully cultivated his image as a Gaucho so as he clawed his way into government he was a hero those who wanted the Big Mean Government to have less power in their lives. They trusted that because of his image he'd fight hard to maintain their indepedence. By 1829 Rosas worked his way into absolute power but proved to be a very different kind of leader. He consolidated power in his own type of Central government, one ruled by him exclusively for 23 years. He formed a brutal secret police, hung the corpses of his dissenters in the Central Plaza and put only friends in positions of power. He used fear, war, and the church (his picture was hung in churches all over) to hold onto power for decades until he was defeated and exiled from the country. There was plenty of dissent but a sizable portion of the population never lost faith in him because they trusted he was a Gaucho and never bothered to look beyond his words to his actions. I find it a curious coincidence that a man born in a mansion in Connecticut worked hard to build an image as a Texan cowboy on his ascent to power. And that he too preached the evils of Big Government before he expanded both the size and power of the centralized government. But a cowboy wouldn't ever do that, would they?

I love tree lined pedestrian avenues!

    Mendoza is, without a doubt, one of the most livable cities I've had the pleasure to encounter. It is full of vast tree lined avenues with sidewalks 10meters (30ft) across. Its a city designed around the idea of strolling down the sidewalk, stopping for a coffee at an outdoor cafe, before winding your way to the Museo de Arte Moderno. The city was lovely, the wine delicious and the weather was great. It made it difficult to leave, on a long overnight bus, to the final destination of this long strange trip... the legendary Buenos Aires.


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:39 PM

    I found your blog and reading about your adventures in Argentina and South America.
    I just wanted to comment that the Arg band is Los Divididos (http://www.divididos.com.ar/)