Somewhere Below The Mendoza Line

                                                                                                                  May 31st, 2006: Mendoza, Argentina

       Sitting here in the picturesque town at the foot of the Andes, nursing the remnants of a hangover in which the
    previous night´s festivities left my duo of American drinking compadres; an unforgettable tandem from Reno whose
    moniker combination (Tucker and Tom) was eerily reminiscent of a Kingston caliber radio station´s on air morning
    crew; and who, after repeatedly singing ¨Oh Happy Day, When Jesus Walked!¨ (from Sister Act) and audibly
    wondering exactly where the Mendoza ¨Red Lamp¨ district might be located, had the hostel´s cook set off into the
    night to find a suitable trio of working girls for our pleasure (for the record, we chose to decline their services [the
    words ¨ten dollars¨ and ¨oral¨ were being tossed around like a nerf football in a college dorm], but thanked the cook
    profusely for his steadfastness in the matter); and with funds running at an all-time low as Sandra and I await the
    arrival of my new bank card that was supposed to have been mailed to our current Mendoza address more than four
    weeks ago, it´s hard not to feel a little bit like the legendary light-hitting former Pirates shortstop must have every time
    he saw his name penciled into the 9-hole.

       But luckily for us, there exists a tradition here in Argentina of people blowing their money faster than they are
    supposed to, meaning that by the 29th of every month, most Argentinian bank accounts resemble ours in that they are
    comnpletely drained, which means that Sandra and I can join the rest of these wonderful people in their monthly
    custom of dining solely on gnochi, that budget-friendly potato-pasta dish that I just can´t seem to get enough of, on the
    29th day of every month. Of course, until my bank card arrives, it just might end up being the 29th for us for quite
    some time, but there´s no reason to worry because life is good, and we have nobody to blame for our financial woes
    but ourselves... well, I guess technically we have me to blame, but that´s another story we don´t need to get into.

       There was a bit of an ongoing theme for the past week and a half, as I consistently and inexplicably found myself
    out walking alone at night (whistling Patsy Cline songs to myself). It started in Salta where Sandra, unable to take a
    nap for any duration less than 10 hours, fell asleep sometime around 7, leaving it up to me to entertain myself. After
    sipping a couple of Quilmes big boy beers by myself and catching the basketball game on the tube - oh no, not the
    Suns-Clippers game, but the highly anticipated Gimnasia - Libertad tilt, with the Libertad team being led by Manu
    Ginaobili´s equally unattractive but less talented older brother, Sebastian, as the two teams squared off in Game 1 of the
    Argentinian final which was apparently being held in a high school gymnasium, this fact not taking anything away from
    the match´s importance as it still managed to pre-empt the Suns game on ESPN South America - after the thrilling
    conclusion (Libertad went up 1-0 in the series, with Sebastian going off for 8 points) I headed out into the warm Salta
    night, eventually ending up at Argentina´s version of C & W where I had a beautiful hamburgesea completa (hamburger
    garnished with 3 slices of ham, cheese, fries, and a couple of fried eggs for good measure) and talked in broken
    Spanish with the owner about all things Bon Jovi as the hits from New Jersey´s second favourite son blared endlessly
    from the speakers (I might have shed a less than sober tear during Bed of Roses). On my walk back to the hostel, the
    family who owned the store I had been buying my beer from was having a little campfire on the street. And I mean,
    they were literally having a fire on the street. I stood around with them for a few minutes, wondering exactly what the
    meaning of it all was, before realizing, as the kids danced excitedly along the sidewalk when their padre took out a grill
    and slapped a few steaks on it, that they were actually having a midnight barbecue. ¨How do you like your steak?¨ With
    a little motor oil, thank you.

       A few days later we got on a luxurious bus and set off for Iguazu Falls, arriving in town 25 hours later. The next
    day we slept through our alarm (the room had cable and there was some Baby-Blue-caliber soft core - what can I say?
    I´m a sucker for romance), but eventually made it to the falls sometime around 11. Now, let the record show that I
    love Niagara Falls. I love everything about it. I love the plastic tackiness, the over-the-top production, the wax
    museums and haunted houses, the honeymoon suites with heartshaped jacuzzis for $49.95 a night. That´s what makes
    Niagara Falls what it is. But Iguazu is the exact opposite of that. The actual falls are in a National Park, which means
    that there´s nothing but nature and a few walking paths, and once you swallow the fact that you´re paying big entry
    fee, you´re free to pretty much walk around wherever you want. It´s hard to explain how cool it is to actually hike to
    the falls (there are 275 separate falls, and they span for two-and-a-half miles), and see them and hear them and smell
    them the way they would have been a thousand years ago, without being bombarded by swarms of people and the
    ringing of slot machines in the background. We took a raft over to one of the islands in the middle of the river and
    cracked a bottle of wine, and then sat back with our feet in the water to take it all in. You certainly can´t pull that off in
    the honeymoon capital of the world. We took some pictures, but they don´t come close to doing the place justice.
    Definitely one of the highlights of the trip, and even though I was reluctant to travel to the other side of the continent
    just to see something I thought I could see an hour from where I live, I´m thankful we did it.

       From Iguazu, we hopped on another bus ride, this one a short little sprint of only 16 hours (if you´re keeping score
    at home, that was 25 hours on a bus, 24 hours in Iguazu, and then 16 more hours on a bus), where I came up with the
    million dollar idea, after having woken up for the 18th time to the sound of a screaming infant, of having a bus line
    with an age minimum. Honest to God. I love kids. Always have. I even plan on having a few of my own one day. But
    these little bastards that wake up at 4 in the morning and immediately begin wailing as if they´re being disembowled at
    the back of the bus need to be stopped. The entire fiasco needs to be ended. And what the fuck are the parents
    thinking when they sign up to take their breast feeding children halfway across the continent on a filthy, disgusting
    bus, changing their diapers in the middle of the aisle and making the trip for the rest of the passengers a veritable hell?
    Make the bus ride Rated R, show Mr. Skin approved flicks on a big screen TV, serve cocktails until the riders pass out
    in an uninterrupted state of unconscious alcoholic bliss, and everybody has a gay ol´ time. Fuck. See what these bus
    rides are doing to me? I´m turning into my dad.

       Anyway, with my head feeling like that nun´s from The Da Vinci Code and the absence of any real desire for future
    procreation, we arrived in Buenos Aires on Tuesday morning, and even in the cab on the way to our hostel, knew that
    it wouldn´t be long before we fell in love with the city. It´s pretty much like a cross between Paris and NYC (I can´t
    even tell you how many times I said ¨this is just like New York¨), with the Washington Monument standing smack dab
    in the middle of town, except everything is about 1/5th the price that it would be in any other world class city. And if
    you just happen to be a meat eater, Buenos Aires is heaven. This is honestly one of those ¨must go¨ places. As in, if
    you like pizza, you must go to Lombardi´s in New York. Cheese Steaks? Geno´s in Philadelphia. Smoked Meat and
    Strippers? Pretty well anywhere in Montreal will do. And if you fancy yourself a Steak connoisseur, you have to go to
    Buenos Aires. And more specifically, you have to go to Parrilla 1880 (Defensa 1665, San Telmo). We went out not
    once, but twice to this ridiculously amazing steak house, each had the Bife de Lomo (a steak that, although I didn´t
    have my ruler with me, must have been 3 inches thick and tender enough to cut with a spoon), mashed potatoes, salad,
    a fantastic bottle of Agentinian wine (God Bless the Malbec grape), and dessert, and the bill came to about $25.
    Absolutely insane.

       There were a couple of nights that Sandra decided to turn in early, and among my adventures while walking around
    that massive city (the population is somwhere above 12 million) alone in the wee hours were; fending off numerous
    slimy carnival barkers trying to entice me into their Gentlemen´s Club (just because you´re walking around aimlessly at
    1 in the morning doesn´t necessarily mean you look like the kind of person that would frequent such an establishment,
    does it?); hanging out with extremely young kids (maybe 5 years old) as they juggled in the streets for money at
    midnight, claiming that they needed the money because their mother was in the hospital while in reality she was
    watching attentively from the park, collecting the coin after every light turned green; and winding up in a gas station
    canteen, where I pounded back some kind of potato and cheese pie while the cab drivers with their grubby hands did
    the same on their extended night-siesta break as we all watched Spanish wrestling on TV.

       But perhaps the strangest occurence on my ramblings involved my losing some money. I know, hard to believe, but
    it´s true. As I was headed out of the room one night (when a city has as much going on as Buenos Aires does, it´s
    almost impossible for me to sleep), Sandra handed me a $50 dollar bill, just in case I  might need it (she has been
    consistently handing me money for the past month - is there a more emasculating feeling?). I was on my way to this
    pizza place that I´d heard about, and being the tourist that I am, lost my way a number of times. Making sure nobody
    was looking, I would occasionally take the map from out of my pocket (the same pocket containing all of my money)
    to check where I was, before discreetly moving along. I eventually got to the pizza place, ate my pie, but when it came
    time to pay the bill... you guessed it: the $50 was gone. I could have fucking killed myself. Here I was, a loser with no
    bank card, no credit card, walking the streets by myself at night, and I manage to lose the last $50 I´ll surely ever be
    trusted with. I emptied the entire contents of my pockets on the table, checked under my seat, on the floor, inside the
    map, but the money was gone. Just fucking vanished. I managed to scrounge enough change to give my waiter a .35
    cent tip, and then walked the two miles home in a state of utter dejection, doing everything I could to resist the urge to
    put my fist through every shop window I passed. When I got back to the room, I woke Sandra up and begged her to
    tell me that she hadn´t actually given me that $50, that I´d just imagined the whole thing, and that I wouldn´t have to
    buy one of those velcro wallets and attach a chain to it so I didn´t lose that. But she went through her pockets, and
    sure enough, she had handed me the money 3 hours earlier. I could do nothing but shake my head. I felt like I was
    losing my mind, and I was completely inconsolable. How the fuck could I just lose things the way I´d been losing them
    on this trip? Just as I was fitting my belt into a noose and checking around for a place to hang it, Sandra looked down
    and asked me: ¨Hey, what´s that under your shoe?¨ I lifted up my shoe, and right there, stuck to the bottom of my
    brand new fake adidas shoes with the blue Goodyear soles, was that fucking $50 bill.

       I have no explanation for this. I had been walking through the filthy streets for more than an hour since losing the
    bill, and there was no gum on the bottom of my shoe or anything, yet sure enough, there was that fucking $50. I do
    not do halucinagenic drugs either. No explanation.

       Anyway, for a couple more anecdotes involving money, there were two attempted robberies on my person within a
    span of 90 minutes on my last day in Buenos Aires. The first took place in our hostel, as our security deposit was
    witheld from us, not because we broke anything or lost our key or neglected to return our fucking bed sheets, but
    because we checked out an hour late. On this entire trip, I can´t think of one instance where I actually checked out of
    a place on time; because that´s what travellers do; they sleep in because they have nothing to wake up for. Never
    before had this tardiness even come close to being an issue until we stayed at that Hostelling International prison with
    their grade school rules. I was obviously unwilling to let this one go, resulting in my having more than a few choice
    words for the manager, the moment being intensified by the fact that Sandra was standing there beside me arguing, not
    with me mind you, but against me. Needless to say, I will never be staying in another Hostelling International hole for
    the rest of my life, and in the days since, I haven´t been able to pass one of their Nazi establishments without muttering
    the word ¨Die¨.

       So that was robbery number one, and I´m sad to say that it was successful. The bastards got 20 pesos off us. In
    the aftermath of this little exchange, I had some time to walk around alone again because Sandra was understandably a
    little less than pleased with my conduct. So there I was walking along some long forgotten street, admiring the
    magazine vendors (it´s the most ridiculous set up they have here: there are guys set up in little magazine huts, and they
    sell all varieties of Latin porn [the Maxim Magazines even have nudity on the cover here] right out in full view, and
    usually right next to the teenie bopper magazines and little kids colouring books - I can´t even imagine what kind of a
    reaction this would get in Toronto) when I felt some liquid splash on my hair. My first reaction was, naturally, that I
    had fallen victim to an aerial pigeon assault. But when I put my hand back there and felt around, it didn´t feel like
    pigeon shite, nor did it look or smell anything like it. Being miles away from the hostel whose manager I´d just told, in
    no uncertain terms, to go eff herself, I had no idea what the hell I was going to do. But before I could say ¨this smells
    a little bit like dirty, watered-down mustard¨, there was some friendly lady beside me, shaking her head, and offering to
    help clean me up. She took out of her purse a fresh pack of kleenex, and began dabbing away. And then some dude,
    another completely random stranger, appeared out of nowhere, and he too was willing to help. Friendly, these
    Argentinians. Being the savvy traveller I am, the first thing I did was rip my bag away from the two of them as they
    attempted to take it off me so they could ¨clean¨ it. By the time this lady was dabbing away at my crotch and feeling
    around my pockets with her Kleenex, I knew something was up, and when I turned around to look them square in the
    eyes, they suddenly began to walk quickly away, the two of them together this time, and as I ran after them, these two
    complete strangers jumped into a getaway car that had pulled up out of nowhere, before speeding off into traffic. I
    managed to get down the licence plate number just in case, but as it turns out, the two Mustard Artists, as they´re
    known here, didn´t manage to get anything off me (stupidly choosing to rob the only white guy in South America
    without a penny to his name). But still. What the fuck? They ruined the throwback Mets hat that I innocently bought in
    the Bolivian Black Market.

       So from Buenos Aires, we jumped on another overnight bus filled with screaming children, eventually arriving in
    Mendoza, where we currently reside. Tomorrow, we´re off to do a biking tour of the vineyards and wineries a la Joe
    Millionaire (slurping sounds optional), before heading into Chile by the weekend.

       Just as a side note, Sandra and I have both recently been having versions of what Gord Downie refers to as the
    ¨Forget-your-skates dream¨. Mine has consistently involved my being back in high school and having an absurdly
    intense 65-page science project due the following day, except I stopped taking science in the 10th grade, and in the
    dream I always seem to miss class and can´t even remember what time it´s at or what day it´s on (as if it were
    university and each day was different), so I obviously have no idea what the hell I´m supposed to do. It´s terrifying.

       The way we see it, the lack of stress and anxiety in this travelling life of ours has left our brains wanting for
    something to be concerned with. It´s as if our brains had become so accustomed to the stress and anxiety of our lives
    at home, that they´re actually in withdrawal right now... I´m sorry. I´m a terrible person for even mentioning it. Enjoy
    the nice weather (it´s autumn down here and only getting colder).
seanmccallum.com
Travelling Man