Food, glorious food

Plaza IndependenciaI haven´t really given Chile the time I´m sure it deserves. After one night in Santiago I headed into Argentina with Sanita and Camilla who I met on Easter Island, to Mendoza, a hedonistic, relaxed little town (well, I say little, a million people live there but it just feels little) just over the border in Argentina. Mendoza is the wine capital of Argentina, responsible for seventy percent of the country´s wine production. The centerpiece of Mendoza is the relaxed and clean Plaza Independencia, a sun-peppered maze of smooth paths dotted with benches where Mendocinos hang out.

The AndesThe journey from Chile to Argentina by road was worth the bus fare and maybe a bit more for unbelievable views of the Andes. The road curves up steep hills back and forth, back and forth, and huge trucks throw themselves round the bends like they´re in a race – I half expected to see a coach teetering on the edge of a precipice with a youthful Michael Caine in the back shouting “Now hold still!” to the tune of The Self Preservation Society (sorry, movie geek took over there). A train line follows the road, but in many places tunnels and track have been destroyed by landslides and rocks – the whole road has a very temporary feel to it, as if the mountains could decide at any minute to wipe it out with a few casual rockfalls, and people would have to find another way through.

Arriving at Mendoza we were taken to a hostel on the outskirts of the center by one of the guys who hangs around at bus stations, train stations and airports ready to sell a bed for the night to any backpacker who was unprepared and hadn´t booked somewhere – like us. By this time there were five of us, Michael who the girls had met in Bolivia, and Jake who I thought was Spanish, but it turns out his Spanish was just really good. A lot of the time, getting off a bus, train or plane, you can instantly spot the other backpackers who aren´t totally sure what they´re doing, at which point you sheepishly approach each other with a line like “so do you know where you´re going?” – and before you know it you´ve formed a tight-knit group in twenty seconds flat, the whole thing being safety in numbers, or maybe an unspoken reliance by everyone on the person who looks slightly more like they know what they´re doing to sort out accommodation, speak to the taxi driver, and basically be Mum.

Walking into the hostel we were taken to, we entered an airless sweatbox of a room, a dorm for about seven people so cramped that you´d be sleeping with someone´s bad socks soaking the sweat from your brow as you twisted and turned in sodden sheets, craving air and getting only other people´s farts and dry-mouthed snores. Fortunately we turned right back around and left the hostel, trying to explain to a crestfallen picky-upy-from-the-station guy that we couldn´t stay there because the dorm was muy, muy pequeno and muy, muy caliente. Lo siento, but gracias for the lift into town. After walking through Mendoza for a short while we finally found Hostel Independencia, and five of us approached the shocked-looking girl at reception to ask for a room, to which her response was that we all looked ´unusual´. It turns out after subsequent investigation that when she said unusual, it was the best English word she could come up with to describe ´sweaty, knackered and fed-up looking´.

MEAT!Our first night in Mendoza, and we went to Las Tanjeras to eat on the recommendation of the guys in the hostel. Las Tanjeras is a tenedor libre (all you can eat) restaurant, and a fine place indeed. Not just because of unlimited quanities of food (Sanita thought this was why I liked it so much and it´s a perfectly good reason), but also because the place was packed with Argentinians eating and having a good time, the whole room occasionally exploding with noisy renditions of Happy Birthday, or people banging on the tables with their cutlery. As hungry as we were that first night we all engaged in an almost orgiastic fit of eating from the numerous dishes on offer, accompanied by generous quanitities of great, cheap red wine.

With a tenedor libre the main problem is the sheer diversity of foods on offer, and having to try and eat in a reasonably co-ordinated fashion rather than throwing ten different and completely diverse things on your plate. I failed and just stuffed myself silly, from fantastic grilled lomo (steak), to lamb, sausages, freshly-cooked fish in cream sauce, salads, gratin potatoes, mashed potatoes, sauteed potatoes, pasta, spinach lasagne, empanadas (little meat pasties), calamari, fresh fruit, flans, ice cream, banana toffee custard, whipped cream and more. We could have rolled out of the place. On top of this we were served by a waiter, Antonio, who I believe is the template from which all waiters should be cut. Tall, composed, with as Jake suggested a slight hint of Basil Fawlty but none of his insanity, polite, friendly and completely professional. And this in an all-you-can eat restaurant, where his counterpart in the UK would probably be a spotty, lopsided-baseball-cap-wearing, couldn´t-give-a-monkeys teenager who´d spit in your food soon as look at you and roll their eyes if you even looked like you were going to ask for another glass.

Would you trust this man...The lifestyle in Mendoza is very Spanish, with people not eating until after ten and not drinking until after midnight – our standard finishing time was about 3 am, except for a night in the El Rancho nightclub which finished when the sun came up and the McDonalds next door was opening for the day. It wasn´t all Bacchanalian excess though – a trip out into the Andes to go white-water rafting was superb fun, with the five of us and this Argentinian in the back, shouting at us to paddle paddle paddle even as we´re totally submerged by water in the frothy rapids. That and a winery tour, almost obligatory in a big wine town but actually pretty dull, and it was time to move on to Bariloche. That is, it was time to move on after we ate at 1884, apparently the 7th best restaurant in the world, right in Mendoza and doing a mean chocolate pudding.

I really am obsessed with my stomach.

Lago Nahuel HuapiAs Mendoza is wine capital of Argentina, Bariloche, nineteen hours south on the bus from Mendoza in Argentina´s lake district, is the chocolate capital, a Swiss-style town right down to the St Bernard dogs. On the shore of the vast Lake Nahuel Huapi, the background a beautiful and neverending collection of Andean peaks, the town is obviously a tourist Mecca, but who gives a monkeys when the chocolates and cakes are fantastic. We stayed for a few days in La Morada, a hostel nestled on the side of a hill and looking out over the lake, where I did nothing more than read and think, while Michael and Sanita went walking up the side of a hill and nearly needed a St Bernard to go get them back. It rained virtually the whole time, but La Morada was a quiet, calm haven with one of the best views out of the window I´ve ever seen.

Originally I only had two weeks to spend in Chile – then I went into Argentina instead – now I wished I had longer. Argentina is a great place I´d love to come back to, to see everything I missed. And eat a lot more. Chile I´ve given no time to at all save for three nights in Santiago and a worthwhile trip to the Museum of Precolumbian Art, so that´s another place for next time I´m round this way… whenever that is. It´s election time in Chile at the moment, so the TV screens are plastered with images of presidential and senatorial candidates waving to crowds, kissing old ladies, and walking flanked by their deputies. Chile has a woman candidate for President in this election, and women appear to be prominent in the election generally, in a country that has apparently just got self-concious about appearing to be chauvanist and male-dominated. Doesn´t change the fact that most of the TV programs seem to include scantily clad women disco dancing.

At the moment I´m in the VIP lounge at Santiago Airport, where I have access to unlimited free drinks, biscuits, Internet, and a good shower complete with complimentary toothbrush, mouthwash and razor. I´m here after buying my way in for fifteen dollars, after realising when I got to the aiport that my flight to Lima was twelve hours later than I thought it was. This caused mild panic, much like when I was woken this morning at the hostel after sleeping through my alarm clock, with the taxi to the airport waiting outside. It´s all the fault of a bloke called Phil who I bumped into after meeting initially on Easter Island – he wanted to go out for a drink, so I ended up with three hours drunken non-sleep last night. One very strange thing happened last night, that I do remember – I wished a man who wanted to sell us nasty plastic jewellery outside a bar good luck, saying to him ´Via con Dios´- ´Go with God´. I only used this because Keanu Reeves did at the end of Point Break and I thought it sounded good. The man however craned himself over my shoulder and said very quietly:
“We… killed… your… son”. I know sometimes things get lost in translation, but he said the same in Spanish, so what the hell he was talking about I wish I knew.

So late tonight I get to Lima, Peru, and the start of a fourteen-day tour including a hike up the Inca trail, still counting down the days to the end of the trip. I´m just off to do some stretches and walk around the duty free shops a few times, I think I need the exercise.