In Buenos Aires we stepped out of the taxi to more traffic and tall buildings and people and noise than we’d had in months. Everything was moving very fast. We adjusted to this civilized chaos slowly. Even now, a week later, I’m still adjusting. In the past I’ve had the tendency to under-dress but since arriving home, I’ve been unable to leave the house without a sweater and jacket because – despite warm May temperatures – the prospect of being cold is too painful.
Adjusting to a more balanced diet, however, was not hard. Argentine cuisine consists of grilled slabs of meat and chimichurri sauce. Empanadas are just mini meat pies and although the locals will tell you otherwise, the famous Argentine pizza is decidedly mediocre. We dropped our bags in the hostel and immediately headed for a Japanese restaurant.
Now that I’m home, time and distance warp my memories. One hundred and ten days worth of moments have been compressed into a capsule of experiences that already feel distant. “What was the best part?” is impossible to answer so I ramble incoherently about some scenic stretch of road. To define the last four months with a single pretty landscape feels inadequate. Invariably, aesthetically pleasing experiences are easiest for others to understand, but this trip was a lot more than a series of scenic bike rides. Those sublime looking mountains appear different when you’re not just looking at them from behind a glass window, but pedaling up them – through wind and rain and snow. The mental images I have of alpine lakes and river valleys, glaciated peaks, and desert sunsets are all mixed up with bumpy roads and rain, bloody knees and numb feet, arguments and sometimes tears.
So “the best part” wasn’t really one thing in particular. It was a long series of things – some pleasant, some not so pleasant, but usually a combination of the two. It was flying downhill on smooth pavement after a long uphill slog; it was listening to the rain from inside a dry warm tent (while eating a giant bar of chocolate); it was pedaling for hours in silence along an empty road. Or maybe, more accurately, it was a string of insane – but often hilarious – experiences that we somehow prevailed through as we made our way to the bottom of the continent. Then again, it’s easy to think back nostalgically on the unpleasant bits now that I’m sitting comfortably indoors and not on the side of the road in some wind-blasted corner of Patagonia eating stale bread and looking down at my scarred legs.
After Tierra Del Fuego, Buenos Aires felt like a luxury filled playground. Suddenly we didn’t have to wake up in the cold, move anywhere, or eat burned rice off the bottom of the pot. But the improved levels of comfort had its downside. We no longer felt stylish in spandex; we couldn’t lick our bowls after eating and we couldn’t ask random people to camp on their property. When you’re forced to get out of your sleeping bag in below-freezing temperatures, a down jacket feels better than a fur coat. After a day spent pedaling up mountains, into headwinds, and through rainstorms, the dry enclosed space in a tent feels like a five-star hotel, and when you’re ravenously hungry, eating spaghetti for the hundredth time is the best meal you’ll ever eat. I guess everything’s relative.
We walked around the city, looking at beautiful buildings and beautiful people. Buenos Aires is like a cross between New York, London, and Paris – a mix of old and new, run-down and immaculate. Crumbling neo-classical buildings painted with artistic graffiti murals stand between ugly concrete apartment complexes. We drank too much coffee, a lot of wine, and some spicy margaritas at “the taco factory.”
But before we left we wanted one last hunk of Argentine meat. La Cabrera is supposedly the best parilla place in Buenos Aires, but it’s pricey. We heard about a “happy hour” special between 7 and 8 when food is half price. At 7:20 though, the place was full. Someone mentioned that Don Julio’s was also good but we didn’t have the address. We hailed a cab and asked the driver if he knew the restaurant. He told us there are infinite Don Julio’s in BA so we gave up and tell him to just drive us somewhere with good parilla. He took us halfway across the city to La Tranquera, a little place on the side of an expressway and we were a bit skeptical – I think the cab driver’s buddy owned the restaurant. Our doubts faded when a giant sizzling steak appeared on our table – the best one of the trip.
Besides the meat and the malbec, Argentina is most famous for tango, a dance that originated in Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century. Official tango shows though are expensive and touristy, so we headed to La Catedral, a “milonga” or tango hall instead. These informal venues are where you can learn the steps and watch other people tango in an unrehearsed performance. We walked into a room packed with people sitting at tables around a dance floor. A live band was playing and a huge crowd of people were dancing in intimate pairings. But it wasn’t tango – more like a folk music jam session slash dance party. We watched the spectacle unfold and since it was our last night, I’ll pretend that we stayed out until 8 AM like you’re supposed to in BA. Five thousand kilometers on a bicycle apparently does not prepare you for the city’s nightlife.
In the Toronto airport, I collected my bags and lugged my bike packed in a giant cardboard box that was in danger of disintegrating at any moment toward the exit. After 24 hours of airports, plane travel, and waiting in lines, I was not in the mood for delays. I gave the woman standing at the door my customs card and she peered suspiciously at my large decrepit looking box. We exchanged a few words -
Woman: Is there a bike in there?
Woman: Is there mud on it?
Me: Nope. Definitely not. We only rode on paved roads.
She raised her eyebrows and pointed to the secondary inspection area. I think it was the extremely muddy tire visible from one of the gaping holes in the side of the box. Another hour spent waiting in line, another lie (except this time, the official believed me), and I was home. I still hav not unpacked and probably won’t until I accept that I’m too broke to go on another bike trip anytime soon.
Thanks for reading.
And thanks to this guy for ignoring common sense and coming with me…
…and for putting up with my abysmal navigation skills and frequent clumsy episodes (neither of which improved over the course of the trip).
Stay tuned for bike trip Part II: “I’m still unemployed, so I guess I’ll bike around the world.” Just kidding….that would never happen…
In the meantime, here’s some Patagonian cinematography courtesy of The Dish (Alejandro’s second favorite blog) Apologies for the somewhat corny narration . For more snapshots of Patagonia, see the photos page.