Having left superficially modern but emotionally primitive and capricious equatorial Latin-America, I’m living in a condominium in the long-established city of Bariloche, at the foot of the snow-blanketed Andes mountains, on the edge of a vast lake in northern Patagonia, three hour’s flight from the Antarctic Ocean. And I’m relieved to find that Argentina is just Gringolandia with Spanish subtitles.
Without leaving, I have been in Latin America for thirty-three years. I have worked as an interpreter, writer, and translator for the U.S. and Canadian governments, as an hotelier and as an owner of a mining-equipment manufacturing firm. I was co-owner of a travel agency for four years and saw much of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru while writing about them.
One day, fed up with the serpentine, elemental mind of Latin business and love, I boarded a bus headed south.
After abandoning myself to four days of trundling through the coastal wasteland of Perú and northern Chile, I found myself on a train one morning among wood-sided rambling farms and heavily forested countryside in the rainy, dark autumn of a far southern latitude.
“Where are we?” I asked the yawning traveler next to me. I pulled out my atlas and watched his finger trail down the tail of South America until he said, “There!”
His finger on where Chile breaks up into inlets and islands, I could see that we were no more than two days from falling into the Antarctic Ocean. Both avid skiers, we noticed Bariloche just over the border in Argentina. After a night in Osorno, Chile, an eight-hour bus ride brought us through the Lake District to the edge of Lake Nahuel Huapí at the foot of the Southern Andes.
I had heard about Bariloche — where North American ski instructors go in June; where I imagined, the Argentine rich escape Buenos Aires’ rainy and foggy winters. I expected the Aspen, Colorado, I’d known in the nineteen-sixties: three thousand trendy misfits, lots of money and flash, and a certain European Class.
Instead, Bariloche is nearer a hundred thousand, its homes climbing south, away from the lake and the Tyrolean gingerbread of the town center, to the poorer settlements; and west, along the lakeshore for twenty-seven kilometers, in a comfy tumble of Swiss and German architecture, amid pine forests, flower gardens, yacht harbors, and clutches of community stores for bread, wines, vegetables and fine clothing; for chocolates and liquor when town center seems too far at nine in the evening.
I live in Patagonia.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived and robbed here. Some I know say they saw Butch Cassidy at the old homestead west of town as recently as thirteen years ago. He’d have been in his nineties. Sure, why not?
It’s not Latin America. It’s not the Third World. Socially, it’s not a nation that needs to develop much. For the average person, it is as organized, industrialized and sanitized as Sweden, Canada, or Japan. With more than sixty channels on cable television, Argentines watch events live — from Australia, from North America, from Moscow — on CNN, ESPN, Paris World, and three riotous and sensual Brazilian stations. Culturally, Argentina is European and American, with a faint background of bygone gauchos.
Culturally, Argentina is European and American, with a faint background of bygone gauchos.
So many Argentines were born and raised in other countries that street conversations in German, Italian, English or French barely raise a passerby’s eyebrow, distract a shopkeeper or daunt a librarian — who happily points you in the direction of the English language library, the German or the Swedish, as smoothly as when advising you on where the best Colombian authors are shelved.
Germans are everywhere, the sweet and cultured and the nervous and circumspect. Italian names and food and curly black hair abound. So many speak English that Gringo visitors are relieved to abandon their labored Spanish.
Argentines delightedly inform visitors that: “It is said that Mexicans are descended from the Aztec, Peruvians from the Inca…” (Here, a sly smile.) “Whereas, we Argentines are descended from ships!”
“Che!” They greet you (rhymes with “say”). It’s a dead ringer for Buddy! Or the Latin Hermano! It’s affectionate. A way of acknowledging that we’re all part of the brotherhood, part of the gawky, charming and infuriating species: Che, don’t mention it. Che, I know just what you mean. Look, Che, I’ll have it for you as soon as I can. And so it goes, in the land of Che Guevara, the Argentine rich-boy revolutionary who cared for others with his life.
Argentines are Che.
Argentines are civilized. Perhaps too much so. They listen to opera and jam stadiums to hear Guns and Roses. But they don’t dance salsa and many are, uncharacteristic of Latins, shy and reserved. They don’t dance in the streets in Argentina, as they do in Ecuador and Colombia.
Every cosmetic and soap company in America and Europe has its factory here. I just bought French Varilux multi-focal lenses, Italian frames, and American Acu-Vue soft lenses; because of the backlog of orders, I had to wait three weeks for delivery.
Like Canadians, Argentines are overwhelmed by what familiar products to cart home from the supermarket: they eat Kellogg’s Corn Flakes at breakfast, brush their teeth with Colgate, Simonize myriad new Renaults and Fords, read Newsweek and Penthouse, and the Paris Match and Stern and Oggi; ski on Salomon and K2s, eat kiwi fruit and American small-kernel sweet corn, and they have brought every imaginable culinary style with them from the lands where they were born.
In comparison to the majority of other developed nations, taxes are low in Argentina. And medical services are socialized, right down to state-subsidized medicines and extended physiotherapy, massage, and home-care. As in North America, there is a glut of educated professionals crowding each other in lines for few employment opportunities. Senior citizens march in protest against late and meager retirement checks.
Argentines, like Canadians, complain a lot. It seems not so much a sign of freedom of speech as it is an indulgent, healthy indication that Argentines, like Canadians, are comparatively spoiled (best not to tell them).
Many of the young are eager, loud and very affectionate. Here I feel part of the universal family of affection: everywhere in South America, even in staid Argentina, men and women kiss each other’s cheeks on greeting and parting; in Argentina, real men kiss each other’s cheeks.
(Loving, I have seen, has as many faces as there are people, varying as much in skill and enthusiasm as there are races, nations, ethnic groups, regional customs, village intrigues, family textures and chance meetings. In this, too, Argentina has it all: the heat of the impetuous equatorial north, alongside the formalized social dance of southern sophisticates.)
In a ritual affirmation of social closeness, Argentines share mate (say, máh-tay).
They pour hot, but not boiling water over “yerba” in a simple gourd bulb, sip through a silver straw until it gurgles dry, then bestow it on the next person, personally refilling it for this instant intimate. You can see Argentines everywhere — offices, cars, the sidewalks — carrying a thermos, mate gourd, and straw, sipping, refilling, then passing it on. Not sanitary, but awfully nice.
I like Argentines. They’re basically honest. They are polite and caring with each other. Senior citizens are called “Grande” — the Great Ones, the Big Ones. Argentines are likely to hunt for the owner of a lost billfold, leave their unlocked cars idling at the curb while shopping or visiting. I’m told that in the far north everyone sleeps with his house unlocked, doors open to welcome cooling breezes and unexpected visitors.
They spend a lot of time outdoors with their children (although more and more there are TV orphans). And there is a no-fuss respect for the law and other people’s freedoms.
I have walked safely home in darkest night from a rich and astonishing dinner with friends, to step politely around a mother rummaging through a neighbor’s garbage cans, tasting what she finds before offering it to her child — no common sight, but noted over time.
The roads are all right. Transportation is cheap and of a luxuriousness and service experienced in North America only on planes. The scenery, often spectacular, includes wonders of nature that are singular, often outshining other countries’ touted marvels.
I have lived so many years in chaotic equatorial Latin America that Argentina is a relief.
I haven’t seen Iguaçu Falls yet, nor the beautiful women of Córdoba (although, strolling the length of Mitre Avenue on a sultry summer evening, the local girls passing are, as they say in Perú, Enough to make a grown man cry). I’ve not been to Buenos Aires (“Fair Winds,” it translates) because people tell me it’s just another people-pressurizing city. And I haven’t gone far south into the land populated almost solely by gauchos and sheep.
But I have looked down from atop Cathedral Mountain across Lake Nahuel Huapí to the distant peaks of Chile, danced the night through in laser-lit discos, and eaten the hot, dripping empanadas prepared by Carolina’s aunt. And I have never been treated as a foreigner. I am as comfortable here as I would be in Colorado or the Okanagan Valley or Montreal. I do live well in Argentina, in easy freedom.
Yes, I think I’ll stay.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Money Belt with RFID Blocking Sleeves: Travel with ease knowing your money and important cards are safely stored, but still easy to access.
Trtl Pillow: In Argentina, travel by bus is common. This unique travel pillow holds your neck in an ergonomic position so that you can sleep en route without getting a kink in your neck.