Mate tea, bicycles, and Argentina

I hit several milestones this past weekend in Bariloche, Argentina.

First, I ate a steak the first night our hostel made us a BBQ. (Any final hope of holding onto vegetarianism in South America is over.)

In Chile, I only eat meat if there’s no other option, but since I was venturing over to Argentina, known for its steak, I wanted to follow the “when in Rome,” wisdom at least once.

Another highlight of the trip was having a great conversation in Spanish.

It was with a man selling gourds for maté tea on the street. One month ago, I could barely walk into a store and ask a question. I will always remember my first day alone in Chile, navigating a new language, a new city, and feeling a bit nervous without a cell phone or a familiar face on this new continent. But as I walked away from this street vendor in Argentina, I realized we just talked about many things: my teaching in Chile, where he was from, a little about the Mapuche natives, and finally, how to prepare mate tea. It was very basic Spanish, but knowing I could connect with someone more than I could a month ago was a great feeling.

Mate & breakfast

Lago Guiterriez

Our first day out was kayaking. Chris and Pablo were our guides, and after sharing mate with us on the beach, they told us about some bars where the locals go…especially La Cantina. “It has a Rolling Stones and Manu Chao kind of people,” Chris told me.

That night, our first stop was “Bar del Sur,” on a narrow, cobblestone street with smoky, dim lighting from the street lamps above. It reminded me of something from Paris. After many hours here, Ellie, Sophie, and I left to check out La Cantina, right on the banks of  Nahuel Huapi Lake. It played everything from West African rap to the Rolling Stones.

Sophie and I didn’t get back to the hostel until 7:30 am. It wasn’t until I was climbing into my bunk  that I realized that I would be waking up in a few hours for a 17-mile bike ride.

The next morning was tough. But before tackling the hills, we all took a gondola ride up Cerro Campanario, one of the world’s best views, according to National Geographic.

From the top of Cerro Campanario in Bariloche.

One of the best 360 views in the world, according to National Geographic. From Cerro Campanario in Bariloche, Argentina.

Gondolas down from Cerro Campanario.

After the lookout point, the plan was to bike the Circuito Chico, the route that winds around the lakes and bays of a national park. All of us are in pretty good shape, but this route was tough. Sophie and I were functioning on two hours of sleep, and I began wondering why I thought this would be an awesome idea.

After the first three hills, we were all out of breathe. Sophie joked that she should be like the mom in the Triplettes of Belleville movie, who rides behind her son in the Tour de France, blowing a whistle for encouragement. (At one point, Sophie did get out her plastic whistle, as we tried to peddled up the hills. I was cracking up at how sad our situation was.)

During the first hour, I think we made every possible excuse to stop. Lunch break at a lookout point? Definitely. A sign on the side of the road is pointing us to hot chocolate and waffles? Sure, ok! After that, we promised ourselves that we would push ahead. (For real.)

Lunch break.

Next we circled around the winding roads of Bahía López, slowly peddling up steep hills as our poor bikes clinked and sputtered as we tried to switch gears. (Poor James’ bike was mystery bag of chains and spokes that never switched to the right gear when he wanted.)

At Bahía López. Halfway there.

Rest stop

Totally riding our bikes up all the hills.

Hours later we stopped at this bridge and met a group of British lawyers who were hiking the same route we were biking. We carried on past them, but we ended up taking breaks to enjoy the views and lakes. They always caught up with us, belting out Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, as they marched. (Whenever we heard the echos of that song, we started picking up the pace. We couldn’t have people who were walking pass us up.)

Five hours later, we made it back to the rental place. Faces red and legs burning, we handed over our helmets triumphantly.

Later that night, James and Fred made it their mission to eat a steak the size of a football. It was well earned.

After the bike ride, we were dead to the world.

Fred and Sophie. All smiles.

The next day was pouring rain, so James and I decided we needed to have a San Francisco hipster moment in a cafe. Drinking coffee in the rain and writing brought me back to lazy sundays in the Bay Area. This low key afternoon was much needed.

We all came to Chile for different reasons, many of us quitting our jobs, be it corporate life in London to managing a bookstore in Santa Cruz. And we’re all here looking for something. Maybe it’s because I’m older than I was when I studied abroad, or maybe it’s just being in this place, but South America has taught me to stop asking so many questions. I love questions. But being here has taught me to enjoy not knowing, to be comfortable with uncertainty, and to just exist without trying to always understand why. Once you stop trying to understand the process, you can find peace of mind. (Maybe.)

It’s already Wednesday night, and I have a busy week of lesson planning, coaching my school’s debate team for a national competition, and giving a workshop on Friday to the English teachers.

Hasta domingo!

8am. Heading back across the Andes to Chile.

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