The following day I picked up Isabella from Puerto Montt and together we drove towards Argentina. After a multistage, complex border-crossing procedure, we made it to Villa La Angostura, a lovely, nicely-paced mountain town on the northern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi. The day before, I emailed our hotel, Hosteria Pichi Rincon to tell them I was now travelling with a friend. She asked me if I wanted a room with two twin beds or one matrimonial. Wow, I thought, this is a crucial junction. I have to decide if Isabella is going to be a “two twin bed” friend or a “matrimonial bed” friend. Would she be offended to find a room with only one bed? Is the fact that she decided to travel alone with me enough to assume a matrimonial bed status? And if that is the case, will she think of me as a boner-less wisp if I don’t request a matrimonial bed?
Although single, I had felt I had been sidelined with some sort of mysterious, unknown injury that had kept me out of the Lust Olympics for a long time so I felt incredibly rusty with all of this. But, the previous looks in her eyes told me there was a good chance that she would become a “matrimonial bed” friend (but I couldn’t be 100% sure).
I chose the matrimonial.
Fully comfortable and confident with my decision, Isabella and I followed the friendly manager, Rosana, to our room. With great anticipation, I waited to study her face. It would tell me all I had to know. The door opened. There it was: basking in the afternoon sunlight, a neat and sexy matrimonial bed. I turned my head to her but then caught some other awful ogre in the background. On the other side of the room was also a twin bed. Damn! This could screw up everything! I felt mixed signals were now being transmitted. I wanted to take that stupid twin bed out the back door and set it in fire in the back lawn.
She put her bag on the twin bed and I put my belongings on the matrimonial. Damn it.
After unpacking, we sat down on the romance-wrecking twin bed and discussed our dining options. The hell with this, I thought.
I kissed her.
And the response was positive.
But being classy, respectable and hungry grownups, we took a time out from this baseball game with a runner on first so we could secure some dinner. After our meal, we picked up a bottle of red wine and a Cuban cigar. The plan was to walk around while I smoked. We shared a lot about ourselves on the ride to Villa La Angostura but suddenly the stakes were raised. The subject of “last time we had sex” bubbled up to the conversational surface. Before I tell you the amount of time for me, I must warn you that it is Rated G…“G” as in it has been so long that my sex life could be discussed with a general audience or in a Disney movie and “G” as in “Grim”. I took a deep breath…”Four years.”
“Mentira (Lie)!” she shouted as her mouth dropped and her eyes bulged. It always gives me great pleasure to tell something to somebody that throws their face and body off the neutral ground they tend to gravitate towards.
Isabella asked me a few times if I was lying. Once she was satisfied I was telling the truth and the shock subsided, she clung to me a little closer and displayed what can best be described as smiling body language. We continued to walk a little and after some bold thought she turned to me and asked me with a welcome South American confidence and comfort, “Will you have sex with me tonight?”
Good Lord. I couldn’t believe this four-year drought might actually come to an end. Rain clouds were gathering and the glorious sound of thunder grew louder and the first majestic drops were now striking my face. With an Irish Catholic awkwardness that will never be capable of destruction, I told her, “Well, uhhhh, sure…of course!”
On our way back, we found a small supermarket that seemed to sell everything, making it the perfect target for rioters in the event of an apocalypse. To frame it even better, it was the type of store where the actual event took place: it was Tuesday at 10PM in Argentina and I was waiting in the line to buy a wine bottle opener, wine glasses, chocolate, chewing gum and some condoms while the man in front of me was waiting to purchase a Black & Decker power drill. This is exactly the type of experience I fantasize about when travelling. The lead up was great too. Isabella and I looked at condoms together which was a first. I usually procure these scandal makers on my own. Her presence turned out to be quite beneficial since I had never bought condoms in Spanish.
So there we were. An unlikely couple making our way back to our charming hotel with a wine opener, a bottle of wine, chocolate, condoms and some chewing gum. We just couldn’t lose.
The elements of the next day were ones that could all be found on the Periodic Table of Pleasure. There was a hike, a dip in Lago Nahuel Huapi, some fine trout at lunch, a professional nap and ultimately a fine dinner. At dinner, I had enjoyed one of the dynamics of Argentina’s struggling economy: the negotiation of the blue dollar (the unofficial rate between the peso and the dollar). Our sexy American dollars are highly sought after in Argentina to the point that most businesses (and individuals) accept and prefer them. This is important to know since the official rate, as in the one you would get at an ATM or when using your credit card, is around 8.5 pesos to the dollar while a good blue dollar rate will get 12 or more. You don’t have to be good with numbers to realize this blue dollar rate will allow you to get 50% fatter and 50% drunker on your vacation.
Before travelling to South America, I had read in a few places that folks you’re exchanging with prefer 50 and 100-dollar bills that are new. This is why I paid my bank a visit shortly before I left and loaded up on 50’s and 100’s that were paper cut new. This was all confirmed with the owner of the restaurant we were dining at who was willing to make a personal exchange with me. As always, Isabella’s perfect Spanish and lady manners provided the perfect lubrication to the process, keeping the deal squeak and friction free.
For dessert, we enjoyed red wine, rare time and a most tender therapy.
After breakfast, we said goodbye to Rosana and drove south to Lago Puelo. Just before our final destination, we decided to drive through Bolson to look for some good Cuban cigars (which were hard to come by). I was tired and at one point briefly drove down a busy wrong way while cars came right at me. In Boston, this would have caused rage beyond calculation. But here, it got me a guy who playfully said in a conversational volume “Hey hermano”. He called me his brother and his tone was one that could have been mistaken for friendship.
Once I gathered my wits and got back on the right side of the road, I began to notice how dirty the air was. At first I thought it was dust that resulted from the very dry conditions and dirt roads but once at our guest house known as Huala Hostel, the owner Dalva told us it was due to multiple forest fires that were not too far off. The smell, taste and sight of smoke were thick enough to stir up concern at first but the locals did not seem to be too worried with this chimney-like atmosphere. Well, I guess we could always chill in the nearby lake if the fire knocked on our door.
If you like meat, Argentina is your place. The quantity and quality is enough to send a vegetarian into a disgust-induced coma. This night we ate at Luz de Luna and absorbed a meal that, upon retrospect, should have been put into a time capsule to prove to future generations that they will never be as great as we are. It was merely a leg of lamb on top of some papas fritas but the lamb itself had been slow-cooked for several hours with a combination of rosemary, other spices and clearly a lot of love. This was easily the best lamb I ever had. You could practically will the meat off the bone with your mind, requiring little to no physical effort.
The staff was a bunch of sweethearts. They all seemed happy to be there and gave an inspired performance. I even had the honor of shaking hands with the chef who humbly described the culinary and enlightened journey of my dish. And, if you still had some available real estate in your belly after that victorious Viking conquest after-battle meal, you had a galaxy of fresh ice cream to explore (which we did).
Driving back from an afternoon of lake pleasure the following day, it started to dawn on me that Argentina looked like scenes out of Mad Max sometimes. The landscape was arid and many of the cars were cartoonishly old and battered looking as if it had been 20 years since the last new car was made. Cars that would have been scrapped before the Great Demise were still being used out of sheer necessity. These cars had mismatched hoods (and some didn’t even have hoods). They were often heavily damaged and held together with random materials and some desperate emotion.
That evening, Isabella and I ate at the same restaurant again and retired afterwards to Dalva’s relaxing yard. No matter where we went, Flora the small lady cat was sure to follow. Flora was one of Dalva’s many animals and once I gave her some leftover trout, she decided to attach herself to my presence. She even came into our room, jumped into my suitcase and onto our bed. It was like she was some strange alternative to the evening mint you might find on your pillow in a fancy hotel.
When we finished breakfast the next day, Isabella and I set sail for a southern village in the southern shore of Lago Traful known simply as Villa Traful. With no reservation and a positive attitude, we touched down on a lakeside camping/cabin arrangement with marvelous views and food. During our dinner outside on the deck, we experienced heavenly visuals and another of Argentina’s common elements. The element I speak of is a stray dog begging at your table. My first inclination was to ignore these dogs since I knew that no matter what I gave them, they would probably use it to buy booze. In all fairness, these dogs are looking for a combination of love and food and they’re usually nice but while I’m eating, I don’t often desire the presence of begging creatures. Sometimes the owner or manager may shoo them away but they always return.
After Isabella and I ate our breakfast the following morning at a table next to our cabin, another cat befriended me and became the lucky recipient of a bowl of milk.
The next day we drove north through cinematic countryside to San Martin De Los Andes. With its grid street system elegantly placed in a valley on the eastern shore of Lago Lacar, this town was already speaking sweet nothings to me before I even got out of the car.
On the way, however, I did have one minor altercation. One thing I really do admire about the South American lady is that she not only shows no fear with a roadside pee, she practically embraces the concept. So we pulled over to the side of the road to release our liquid tension. While she chose a spot right next to the car, I laughed at her indecent proximity to the road and dashed through some tall vegetation to attain more cover. Thinking all the while I was the wiser, I returned to the car and looked down at my legs; they were absurdly covered in sharp burrs. It took about 10 minutes to removes these little f#*ks, a process made worse by the sting I received by the sharp burrs themselves and Isabella’s vengeful laughter.
For the next three nights, we checked into Apartamento Maiten, located in a quiet corner of San Martin. We had a nice two-floor affair with a warm wooden interior, two bedrooms, a kitchen and an effective little balcony in the back. The next day, a maid called our telephone and asked when she could clean our unit. In efforts to preserve global resources and avoid an interruption, I told her not to bother. “Somos personas limpias (we are clean people)” was the reason I gave her which drew about 45 seconds of powerful laughter from Isabella who overhead my chat from upstairs.
We then made an effort to track down some lodging for our next stop. Although we didn’t know exactly where it would be, we knew it would on the other side of the Andes in Chile. First we decided to take a gravel road pass that took us into Chile and then take a three-hour ferry ride over a long thin lake caught between two mountains and ultimately to the beautiful Huilo Huilo national park.
This idea disintegrated when we discovered we wouldn’t be able to book a ferry until three days after our desired departure date so we pursued the idea of a more northern pass, Mamuil Malal. This pass was meant to be stunning and would bring us through Pucon where I was three weeks previously. Thinking we might get a good deal on lodging due to the end of busy season, we called several places in the Pucon area to get pricing. Unfortunately, prices still seemed locked in their high season mode. Although we didn’t book anything, we decided that the Pucon area would be our next stop and that we would book something later that day.
We headed into town and stopped in at a small bakery. On the wall, a flat-screen TV was showing the news. There was footage of a volcano erupting which naturally grabbed my attention but what really caught me off guard were the words below the footage: “Volcan Villarica, Pucon”. I looked at Isabella and said “Pienso que necesitamos buscar una otra via a Chile. (I think we need to find another route into Chile)”. The titillating combination of the volcanic eruption and my mastery of Spanish clearly distracted Isabella to the point she no longer owned the mental capacity needed to purchase something at the bakery (that’s how I saw it anyways) so we moved on to a nice little restaurant to order some takeaway. On our way, we decided to go back into Chile the way we came and to stay over at two of my favorite lodging options that Isabella could now see: Casa Ko and Zapato Amarillo.
Pondering the eruption a little more, I noticed two interesting elements of this event. One, it seemed like everywhere we went was falling apart after we left or right before we arrived. Both of us had visited Dalcahue on the island of Chiloe and a week later, a massive forest fire swept through the area. As I mentioned before, near Lago Puelo, forest fires were popping up like teen dreams before, during and after we left. Now Villarica blew its stack after I left. I wasn’t sure if this made me important in some way or simply some asshole that brought about bad fortune.
The other thing of note was that when we tried to negotiate with hotels earlier in the day before knowing of the eruption, I either couldn’t get a lower price or they were booked up. What?! A volcano was erupting in their backyard! Hotels should have been empty and we should have been given entire floors of buildings to ourselves for $5 a night and all the free shower caps we could handle. These hotels should have been starving for business, given the natural disaster.
That night we ate at Torino Bar and Bistro and ate a meal that is still waiting for words to be invented to justly describe it. All I can tell you is that my dish involved a pile of legendary meat covered in cheese and tomatoes with an appropriate amount of garlic found in each bite. In the end, a sensational crème brûlée took us to where we needed to be. We were so stuffed with edible pleasure after this that the only option was to burn off calories at a nearby lousy video arcade.
I’m not sure this fine meal was to blame but something unkindly lingered in my digestive track for the next several days causing stomach aches and brown problems. If I had to guess, my decadence hit a point of critical mass and became more than my body could bear. Luckily it did not keep me from making it back to Chile and to Casa Ko where we were still able to visit the pristine region of Cochamo.
After a hike, we hung out with the locals that were all sitting in front of a house located at the trail head. Isabella was lovely enough to find me a soothing cup of Lady Tea (chamomile). She instead opted to have the traditional drink of Argentina and southern Chile: mate (pronounced mah-tay). I love mate and drink it at home in the states but I thought it wise to avoid any stimulating drinks in my current condition. However, stimulating ladies were still allowed in my daily regimen.
It was great to watch how these people drank mate and how communal it was. There was only one gourd on the table and it was shared by everyone that wanted to drink mate. Sticking out of the gourd was a metal straw that had a filter on the bottom to keep out the mate leaves that constituted at least 50% of the gourd’s content. Someone would typically finish the gourd off and pour some hot water back into it. Then someone else would come by a moment later and do the same thing. When the flavor weakened, someone would dump out the old wet leaves and replace them with new ones and begin the process all over again. Watching this, I had to guess that everyone in South America had contracted Mono within the same week decades ago.
At Casa Ko that night, we met a lovely team from Germany named Liselle and Raul. Raul was originally from Chile but had to leave 35 or so years earlier to escape the harsh political regime of Augusto Pinochet. Interestingly enough, his ancestry contained no Chilean elements. He was actually 50% Italian, 25% Spanish and 25% Irish.
Also intriguing was his look. His skin was tan and his salt and pepper hair was long and straggly and thinning a bit in the crown area. His short beard was white and politely matched his eyebrows. He had round cheeks and the eyes of William H Macy. And these eyes were always filled with life and activity. Liselle was also noteworthy in her appearance. She was very petite, probably not standing much higher than the kindergarteners she worked with at her job. Her hair was short and her smile had the staying power of a tattoo.
Isabella and I became quick friends with these two lovelies. In fact, Isabella became friends with almost everyone with undeniable ease. I’m fairly skilled at meeting new people but Isabella excelled at it which brought yet another welcomed level of vitality to my trip.
We left Casa Ko on what would be the first and only day of rain of my month-long sojourn. Due to the weather and my malfunctioning digestive services, we did something I love doing when travelling: we went to the movies. To me, watching a movie in a theater is like going to sleep. Coming out of the theater is like waking up. You almost forget where you are and your mind expects its familiar environment. Exiting into a Chilean mall was almost as good as the film itself (Kingsman).
When the movie ended, we drove north to Puerto Octay to stay again at Zapato Amarillo. We arrived at dinner time and sat across from a vivacious Dutch couple in their early 60’s. Karla was pleasant and most certainly the “straight man” in the double act. Her husband Richard was bombastic in both demeanor and appearance. This tall man had a face that provided no challenge to a caricature artist. His wild white-grey hair sprouted up from his head and then down the sides like a tuft of overgrown grass. His mustache and accompanying patch below his mouth were also white-grey.
To be just, his mustache was worthy of a dedicated wing in the Jedi Archives. It was a giant push broom of a thing with light tobacco stains towards the bottom. His nose looked as if it had been broken once or twice and hastily put back into place. And when he laughed, which was often, it was an all-encompassing laughter that somehow turned his face into even more of a caricature rendering. It was amazing to me how in just two days, Isabella and I met two different couples that we both would have felt comfortable engaging in some sort of multi-couple dancing event with.
The following day, we ran into Raul and Liselle in the German-styled town of Frutillar. We enjoyed an effortless stroll and dining experience with these two winners. We got a kick out of all the German themes that kept popping up. They were reminders that many Germans settled in southern Chile long ago. While most of these settlers were good folks, there were a minority of Nazis that fled to the region (and many other parts of South America) after WW2 in efforts to escape punishment for their war crimes. In fact, the night before, Richard and Karla told us how they happened upon some sort of remote guest house in a remote part of Chile that stank of a dark Nazi past.
After Zapato Amarillo, we made the long drive north towards Santiago. About two hours south of Santiago, we decided to spend a couple days in part of Chilean wine country. The area we decided on was Colchaqua Valley and the town was Santa Cruz. During our stay, we pretentiously visited a winery, an experience humbled only by the fact that we were wearing hiking boots.
On our last day, we drove north towards Santiago and with a little time to kill, Isabella decided to take me up in a funicular to the top of San Cristobal Hill where one could see all of the city and beyond. Back on the ground we ate at a restaurant nearby where I was able to savor some pastel de choclo one more time. Afterwards we drove to the airport. We sat outside for a couple hours. I was waiting for my plane and she was waiting for a friend to pick her up. The surrounding scenery may not have been dramatic but the weather and company were exotic to me.
We walked back into the airport. It was time for me to make my way through security. Before I went in, I paused and said some parting words to Isabella. She seemed a little sad. I looked at her and asked, “Are you going to be okay?” Upon hearing my question, she put a slightly out of character, defiant smile on her face and said, “Always.”