Friday, October 5, 2007

To the North and Back

We're either nuts or stupid. A week long roadtrip with two small children? But the desire to travel is so strong, we're going for it. Abuelo Ruben is coming, too, in his own car, so separating the kids should help with the noise/bicker level when on the road. He plans to part ways with us later on in the trip.

No electricity, and plenty of rocks

If I had only one word to characterize Argentina's province of San Luis, from the part I saw of it, it would be: rocks. The whole province seems to be littered with stone structures, from the 18th century houses that are still lived in, to the hundreds of miles of short walls, called pircas, that snake the rolling hills, constructed before the days of wire fences. I think of the poor saps who built those walls and wondered how much they were paid for their toil. Sheep must have been pretty darn valuable.

Who ever said Latinos weren't hard workers? Hah. I haven't met too many people in my life like Cecilia and Damien, originally from Buenos Aires, who built their home and two small guest houses out of the stones they unconvered on their several acres of property. They did it alone, and it took them years. Their artistry and attention to details shows in the house's interesting angles and curves, in the sinks and the firplace shaped with their own hands, the curtains they sewed, the candleholders they desgined. I have never in my life stayed in such a labor of love as that gorgeous little house, nestled into the dry desert-like hills near the town of Trapiche, in the province of San Luis.

How in the world did we find such a jewel? We got a list of guest houses at Tourist Information and Luis made a few calls. "This one," said Luis excitedly, "is very remote, made of stone, there's no electricity and it's heated by firewood! It's perfect!" And it was. Check our their website for a better idea:

Unquillo Impresionism

Traveling with small children, I'm learning, is best enjoyed by spending time, along the way, amongst long time family friends who love children. Ruben has known Ethel since the 1960's, before they all had children. Later, Luis and Ana played with Ethel's four children on the beaches of the Patagonia town of Piramides. Fast forward to 2007, and the families are again together, with a passel of busy grandchildren. Nowadays, Ethel is a widow, and has recreated herself as an artist. She shleps her easel up into the hills to paint, and returns with lovely impresionistic landscapes (which she sells). Unquillo, where she lives, is a painters' enclave, and it's so appealing I can understand why. The pretty little town climbs the mountains behind the city of Cordoba, and we spend several afternoons hiking and exploring the hills.

Ethel's grandchildren come to play with Lucas and Maite, and they spend hours in the backyard, "cooking" and digging with their spoons, bowls, and backhoe loaders. Ethel has the perfect grandmother attitude: "What fun is there in having a clean house? I need children here to mess it up!" I like not having to apologize for the bits of playdough our kids leave everywhere. We celebrate Lucas' 4th birthday with an inflatable jumping castle in her back yard, a choclate cake, and Ethel's large family. We end up staying a week (A WEEK!! Unthinkable in the U.S.!) and Ethel is completely serious when she pleads with us to stay longer. She takes hospitality to a new level.

We Come Bearing Chaos

Negrin is a retired composer and musician. He recites poetry to me as he pounds the meat for milanesas (breaded steaks). Negrita, a seamstress, stops working on a leather jacket to drink coffee with us. Valeria, their daughter, breezes in from her job as a costume artist, as always stylishly dressed and perfectly made up. Ileana, another daughter, is somewhere in the city, explaining the complexities of Spanish grammar to foreigners, and their son, Eduardo, who teaches music, drops by to visit on his way to a lesson. Everyone wants to see us, to kiss our children and talk about how we are faring in Argentina. We are back in Ramos Mejilla (a city in greater Buenos Aires) to visit, six months after we first arrived in Argentina and stayed with them for a few days. Lucas and Maite make themselves right at home, enjoying the attention and the chocolate milk.

Negrin and Negrita seem to welcome the noise and mess our small children bring, especially since their four kids flew the nest, and left the house quiet. Ruben's and Negrita' families share a long, colorful history of friendship: as children, they lived across the street from each other, (1940s) and later, as adults, their own children spent many happy hours playing together. Neighbors for 30 years, and friends for 60.

Little Farmer Girl, Little Farmer Boy

On Oscar and Nene's small farm in the province of Buenos Aires, Lucas and Maite were busy litte children. They: rode a horse; chased chickens; saw sheep, goats, and cows; rode a tractor, climbed around in a 100 year old wagon; spent the night in a 100 year old farm house. This is another one of those places with lots of family history to it. In the 1970s, Ruben often took his young family to this farm on weekends, and Luis has often reminisced about these visits. He has always said that his love of the outdoors started right here.

I listen to Oscar, who is Ruben's first cousin, Nene, and Luis update each other about various family members. Oscar talks about the "old day", when his 15 year old aunt raised her 13 siblings after their parents died. Nene tells me about growing on a farm so remote they rarely went to town, and when they did it was with the horses and wagon. They reminisce about the early years on their own farm, as newlyweds, when Oscar plowed and planted his feilds using horses. (the late 1950's and 60s!) Not even my own grandfather, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska worked the feild with a horse. Back in the 1920s, they owned tractors.

After weeks of traveling, every nook in our car is filled with crumbled crackers, and the kids' books we read in the backseat are a bit roughed up. Spontaneity and the desire to keep traveling got the better of us, and our one week trip turned into three. Luis, in a former lifetime, must have been a farmer, because in no way did he want to leave. The kids and I are ready, though. Lucas has missed three weeks of preschool, and Maite does better with a stable situation. Back to Neuqen, back to our routine, and back to plan our next family vacation, when my parents come: Chile. Stay tuned.

. . a few more travel highlights worth mentioning . . .

two days and two nights spent in a cabana (a little house, complete with kitchen, dining rom and bedrooms), several kilometers off the main road, near Merlo, in San Luis. This cabana had no neigbhors, had a mountain behind it and a creek running nearby. We had a lovely morning hike up the creek. A real find for only 80 pesos a night (less than $30!)

A day driving through an area called Traslasierra, on our way to the city of Cordoba. The road wound its way through little towns, one of which was particularly pretty: Las Chacras. Along the roadside, we saw pottery stands, and artisan's selling their work from their houses. Following the sign that indicated "Vivero Bar" (Greenhouse Bar) we followed a dirt road to a small house nestled in greenery where the owners had set up a little bar in the livingroom. They fixed us lunch, and talked about they had left Buenos Aires in search of an alternative lifestyle. The whole town was starting to fill with artists and families from Buenos Aires.

Sightseeing in Cordoba. Ruben watched the kids back at Ethel's, and Luis and I played tourist in Argentina's second largest city. Jose, Ethel's son, showed us around. Cordoba is an amazingly old city, with a cathedral dating back to the late 1600's, and the second oldest University in Latin America. Very striking.

Back road driving. We meandered our way through San Luis, passing through little towns, observing lots of grazing animals, and gauchos on horseback. Plus lots and lots of rock structures.

Back road driving, part 2. On the way from Azul (Oscar and Nene's) to Neuquen, we took lots of secondary roads, and were rewarded with almost zero traffic, green vistas, out of the way towns, one of which we stayed the night in: Gualtrecho. It must have been a special day in town, because plenty of men were dressed in traditional gaucho finery: white, billowing shirts, dark cotton pants that button around the ankles, called "bombachos", a bright colored sash around their waists, and black berets perched on their heads. Very elegant looking.

And most of all. . . . A HUGE THANKS to: Ethel, Jose and Amado, Andrea, Gabriel, Hiluen and Aixa, Lorena; Negrin and Negrita; Oscar and Nene; and most of all, to RUBEN, who was a great help with the kids, and a pleasure to travel with.

For pictures of this trip, check out: