See all the photos from the final Argentina segment here…
In late 2007, after a year of traveling west around the globe mostly in a charitable tuxedo, I returned to the US and immediately launched back into my old, high-energy life. I organized a big social event in NYC and then headed directly to Maine to work at a high-minded conference called PopTech. One affliction that long stretches of traveling brings is that you quickly get used to the ease of living in the moment and your ability to create and follow intricate schedules greatly suffers. Not yet understanding this fact, I had given myself no time to acclimate and I quickly burned out. Actually, it was a very similar feeling to the edge that I’d found myself approaching a few months before this trip: way too over extended and way too much going on. A few of my friends who were also working at the conference noticed the shift in my energy but overall, I managed to keep it together. On the final day I quietly slipped off the grid, escaping to my sister’s wild life sanctuary in the woods of Ithaca, where I spent a few weeks working on web projects, helping Victoria care for broken animals and plotting my return to LA in a more mindful way.
In order to not repeat my error this time, I decided that the best way to return to LA, without experiencing the full effect of culture shock, was to incorporate a strategic plan:
- DO NOT return directly to my old loft (which is always a hotbed of roommate activity). Instead my sweet friend Daphne offered to pick me up at the airport and let me use her warehouse as a halfway house until I was ready to officially emerge.
- DO tell everyone else that I was returning on a later date so as far as my groaning coworkers were concerned, I would launch directly into meetings on the day I got back (which is actually three days later than the reality).
Daphne happens to live in downtown LA near the largely Hispanic fashion district; an unexpected but welcome twist. After dropping my bags we went for lunch and as we walked down the street it didn’t feel that much different from many parts of South America: countless Latino vendors were selling a spread of cheap clothes, trashy lingerie and all sorts of blinking, buzzing and whirring nick-nacks. A dark-skinned mustachioed man was selling ice cream from a styrofoam box on wheels; he rang his bell to get our attention while a guy missing a few teeth smiled at me, trying to entice us with his bacon wrapped hot dogs. I politely declined both. Prior to my departure I would visit this area of downtown and was always a little surprised by its chaotic street scene. Now it seems like a clean and quiet version of any street you’d find in La Paz, Bolivia.
So here I sit, in a thick armchair that rests on an unfinished wooden floor in the middle of a sparsely furnished, 4000sq/ft loft. On the desk in front of me, besides my netbook, is an old typewriter, an old and very inaccurate framed map and a small statue of a fat, naked sailor. Outside in the harsh sunlight, a fire escape looms over the busy street scene. The bell of the ice-cream vendor is still audible amid the cacophony. On the table near the rugged kitchen is a bust of a Victorian society woman and a collection of Eiffel Tower souvenirs. At the other end, Daphne’s roommate Hillary, a seamstress, is sewing some custom curtains. Daphne, a ceramist, who was cruising by earlier on roller-skates, is now giving a class in her workshop in the room next door. I’m drinking coffee from a colorful hand-made clay mug. This is the calm before the storm; in the days following, I will have a slew of meetings (probably involving emotionally charged people), speak at two events and oversee both the Mindshare event and a Syyn Labs installation at TEDx, all while finding time to fit in a show of my photography at a gallery party. But Daphne’s giant loft and it’s eclectic pieces of art offer me a refuge until I’m ready to emerge, when I will boldly walk outside into the spring sun, raise one fist in the air and shout “God damn, it’s good to be back in LA!” But I’m not quite ready yet.
OK, before I face that, lets back up a little, to twelve days earlier when I was crossing the Bolivian border into Argentina. Three things were immediately striking: the cleanliness of the streets, the almost immediate smell of parrillada (the classic Argentine BBQ meat) and the breezy comfort of the pair of girl’s socks that had somehow found their way into my clean laundry at the last hostel; they have stars on them and are very lightweight. At the long line on the Bolivian side I met Anthony, a dusty Brit with angular features and a south London accent. After making it across the border to the town of La Quiaca, we jumped on the first bus going south and began to volley the usual traveler banter. As my trip has been coming to its close I’ve found more of my thoughts turning towards the return – and how things could (and should) change. Anthony was nearing the end of his trip to so I posed him the same question. After giving it a moments thought, he began:
“My mates thought I was crazy, coming alone on a trip like this. And truthfully I didn’t know what to expect either – I’ve never done anything like it. But it’s been brilliant!” He paused and looked out at the passing desert landscape. “I used to be such an arrogant, superficial git. I’d only go to the best clubs and date the most fit girls – you know, models. And if either didn’t work out, I’d act really miffed. I’m starting to see how meaningless all that was – I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I’ve been down here.” He smiled a deeply content smile. “I hope I can maintain this feeling when I return, but I’m a bit worried I won’t be able to.” I told him that the doors had been opened and that like it or not, he’d never be the same again.
“Sure, old habit patterns, people and situations will be available again – and you may even slip back into some, but your awareness of them, and your scope of perception will be forever different.” I told him, and was simultaneously instructing myself, to try to figure out what to change before going back. As we approached a tiny desert town called Tilcara, I decided that it seemed like as good as any to get off. I bid farewell to Anthony, the friendly ‘ex-wanker’ as he’d described himself, and hopped off the bus onto the dusty road.
Tilcara’s adobe buildings and cobbled streets offered a quiet respite to catch up on writing. During the day I also got a chance to explore the quebradas (or ravines) in the surrounding hills. As I headed up the dry river bed I scrambled over rounded rocks of bright purples and reds. I passed some donkeys that were hauling goods to the next desert town via the intricate series of mountainous paths. The path I was on became more steep and began skirting the edge of craggy cliffs. A solo bearded goat stood precariously close to the edge and was yelling (or whatever goats do) over the edge. I looked down to see a slew of his goat-friends hopping between rocky out-crops on their way to the top. After moving through a large area of low desert flora, punctuated by the occasional tall and thick cactus, I came to the opening of a ravine called El Gargantua del Diablo – ‘The Devil’s Throat’. The once powerful rover, now only a trickle, had carved a steep “v” through the hills over centuries, leaving the rock smoothly curved in many places. After hopping around the stream I eventually reached a small but picturesque waterfall. It was high enough, and the cliff walls smooth enough, that it prevented me from going any further, so I turned back. For the entire hike I was considering my imminent return to LA and the numerous tasks at hand. In the last three months I hadn’t had one excessive emotional flare up or moment of harsh self-judgment, which I was often prone to. Even amid the passport hassle I’d managed to keep calm and level headed. In three decades my mind had never felt so stable, inspired and creatively fulfilled. In a moment of great clarity I realized that it wasn’t just important, but imperative that, like Anthony, I try to maintain this mindset as much as possible when I return home.
After two pleasant evenings of candlelit dinners, writing my journal while being serenaded by folk music troupes, I found the romance between me and my netbook somewhat insufficient. I was craving some human company and was looking forward to seeing Anna, the pretty Latvian who I’d met on a Bolivian train journey a few days earlier. I decided not to linger any longer around pleasant but sleepy Tilcara and decided to head to Salta earlier than planned, to find some peaceful places to write. Anna would arrive a few days later and had requested that I find a place to stay and plan an adventure for the day after her arrival. I am good at things like that so was happy to oblige.
After arriving in Salta and being rather unimpressed with the hostels near the main square, I found a place about 10 minutes away. It was an extremely friendly hostel, and even had a nice little garden equipped with Wifi. However, upon heading to bed that night I found that I wasn’t the only one in my room, and when I turned on the light I saw about ten cockroaches scuttle into the shadows. Adding to this rather revolting reality was one large insect which was flying around noisily, that is until it had a fateful and juicy encounter with a rolled up newspaper. Most insects generally want to stay as far away from you as possible, so as long as we all kept to ourselves, I figured we’d all be happy. To minimize the chance of a continuing relationship with my six-legged roommates, I balanced both my large and small backpack, and the rest of my clothes and shoes on a chair in the middle of the room. I pulled the bed out from against the wall and used my cotton ‘cocoon’ bag that I’d packed for such occasions. Oddly enough, perhaps energized by the fear of going to sleep, I did some of my most productive writing in this shabby room. Besides the more fun blog posts that I’ve been releasing publicly, I’ve been working on some more personal items throughout the trip, such as a creative ten year life outlook, a collection of some of my deeper thoughts and visions and a loose protocol for my return to the states. At about 5am, with a cramped back and my contact lenses firmly dried to my eyeballs, I finally fell asleep, leaving the lights on as a hopeful repellent to any creepy crawlies who decided they might want to get intimate.
The next morning I made my excuses to the landlord, noting that the room needed a thorough cleaning, and went on my way, back towards the center square. After passing through the doorway under a grubby sign, I found a charming and more importantly, insect-free little hostel called El Alcazar which gave me a good rate for a few days. I also booked Anna one night in her own room and planned a day trip to a winery which apparently had some stunning surrounding scenery. I was looking forward to surprising her with all of my planning, somewhat aware that I was allowing my expectation to swell, but rather sure that it was warranted.
For a few years of my adolescence, thanks to the artistic and nomadic lifestyle of my Italian-American mother, we had lived Italy where we still had a handful of cousins. We spent countless hours enjoying cappuccinos in the piazzas of Rome’s historic center where, in her relentless creativity, she was regale me with tall tales of the neighbors. The scandals of Antonio, the cavorting chicken man, and the jealousy of the butcher, his brother, who was cursing his days through the Mad Cow crisis. She would wave at the old mafioso, charmingly known around the neighborhood as ‘Papa’ and give a friendly nod to his dashingly good-looking pimp of a son, who would perch on his scooter all day, making sure his brown leather shoes remained unscuffed while directing high class call girls where they were needed. To this day I still love sitting at cafes and watching people go by. Furthermore I have to say that Salta, in fact Argentina in general, is home to some of the most stunning, tan-skinned beauties that have ever blossomed on the earth’s green surface. At times their beauty is so striking that mere words can’t capture it; instead it is best described by describing the effect it has – a sort of dreamy wave that courses through a red-blooded man’s body manifesting into a series of fragmented snap shots of raunchy imagination. I also have to completely reprimand the Catholic Church – if you’re going to make ridiculous rules than please do a better job enforcing a more strict dress code on your school girls; I feel like I’m going to burn in the bowls of your sulfurous hell just for glancing at their giggling pseudo-innocence.
Finding it difficult to avoid my lecherous thoughts, I tried to figure out just where these pangs of lust were coming from. Is their root in a man’s yearning balls or his compulsive brain? Probably it starts in the former and then reaches the head, which tries to craft a solution to the madness. It’s a fact that as the time between a man’s sexual releases gets greater, so does the erraticism of his thoughts and vividness of his imagination. Surely it differs between men, but after a few days without any release I can acutely feel the presence of a restless energy in my body. As the intensity expands, lustful thoughts begin to spring from a growing number of possible avenues. The sharp curve of this energetic growth is often indirectly proportional to your standards, which can drop precipitously, especially in times of decreased inhibition. This is where the term “She’s an Arctic 10” comes from – this refers to woman who you don’t find that sexy, but you know if you lived in the Arctic for 6 months, your standards would probably shift. Eventually it gets so bad that even inanimate objects, like a naked mannequin or a mere artistic expression such as a sexual painting, can be enough to set your mind on a path of desire. And so, surrounded by this almost debilitating multitude of beautiful women, I began to ponder why our idea of beauty exists at all. In many ways, even though I see it present in myself, I find such superficial attraction quite a nasty trait – but there must be solid reasons why it evolved. Perhaps it’s a way for us to choose healthy mates? But, that doesn’t seem to fit, especially when it comes to the current idolizing of super thin model types, whose diets of Coke Zero and cocaine leave them with frames that can barely hold the fashions that they’re modeling. Perhaps the flexibility of attraction is a reflection of the times? For example, in a world of obesity, the attraction to slender figures lies in their (perceived) ability to control themselves. But many men, especially the cliché of African men, love curvy women. Is this a contextual relic of a more tribal history where wider hips and stronger frames promised healthier children and the more likely survival of the mother? We can also see that during many times throughout history, and in many cultures to this day, more girth indicates more prosperity – which is obviously closely linked to attraction. Attraction also surely has roots in the fueling of our egoic structures. What else, apart from wanting to be seen with such a aesthetically blessed creature, is the drive – especially in situations where the women is question is a high maintenance bitch? Like an expensive or rare sports car, this ‘trophy’ might outwardly indicate an achievement of high status, and sure they may be fun to ‘drive’, but they’re often not worth the hassle of what it takes to maintain them. Conversely there’s the cruel old joke that big girls are like Vespa’s: they’re fun to ride until you friends see you on one. Personally I used to be exclusively attracted to slender women, but some months ago I experienced the joy of a ‘big girl’ and it was amazingly fun. We wrestled around and she was a gracious lover. It was a very soft experience. A wide new door had swung open in the hallways of my perception. Society puts conventionally beautiful women on pedestals to offer girls an idol of what perfection looks like, and men the ultimate object to obtain. It’s so horribly shallow but deeply entrenched and at its root, mostly a device to sell more stuff to both sexes. Either way I’ve been finding that the more you observe your blind reactions, the quicker they begin to fade and as the Sunday church bells rung my head returned to the present moment.
As the evening descended I dropped my laptop at the El Alcazar and walked around town for a few hours enjoying a pre dinner ice cream, which was fast becoming a slightly dangerous habit. Eventually I stumbled on a pedestrian street full of restaurants, bars and discos. I decided this would be the perfect place to bring Anna for her first night in town. Many of the bars in Argentina are are bit different than what we’re used to in Europe or the United States. Most of the time there’s no actual bar and people sit and drink at separate tables in their own groups. This can make meeting new people, especially if you’re on your own, more challenging – prompting the rather bold move of just sitting down and engaging an existing group. I’d actually successfully done this a few times (the foreigner angle helps) but it requires boldness not just in action, but in language too – and when your Spanish is only mediocre it can be a little tiring. When you’ve been on your own for a while you start missing the cozy company of regular friends.
The next morning while doing some hotel-room yoga (my self led classes are pretty half-assed I must say – but I was making an effort to battle the empanada bulge) I began watching Forrest Gump. I remember I’d enjoyed the movie years ago but now I saw it with different, more astute eyes. The wonderful skill that Forrest continually displayed was the ability (fair enough, in his case seemingly due to a slight mental retardation) to live completely in the present moment, with no expectation of where it was leading. All of his actions were rooted in curiosity and enthusiasm and hence most of the outcomes turned out positively.
So the moment that I was looking forward to finally came – and what a surprise: Anna arrived with all the warmth of a Latvian winter. It was bizarre and more than a little disarming. The passionate exchange that we’d shared only days earlier had been replaced by an emotional distance. After checking her in at El Alcazar we walked over to their hotel where she’d planned to meet a couple of English guys who’d been on her bus.
“Lets all go out to dinner together!” She exclaimed. No big deal, I thought to myself, and took all three to the romantic restaurant that I’d scoped out the night before. The Brits turned out to be really humorous and we all laughed well in to the night, which lightened my mood. Anyway, the next day they were heading to the Foz de Iguazu so I’d have another chance to get Anna to warm up, without them distracting us, on our day trip to Quebrada del las Conchas (AKA Ravines of the Seashells or Vaginas, depending on the context).
It was a bright morning and it was going to be a relaxing day of being chauffeured around the neighboring countryside. Raul was our guide, a skinny and humorous forty year old who zoomed though the mountain roads while stuffing coca leaves into the growing wad in his cheek. We darted over red rocky passes and through verdant green valleys, stopping to take pictures:
“Lets get Raul to take a picture of us together!” I said in a playful way, hoping to see Anna’s mood improve.
“Lets just do it later, he’s sitting in the car now.” Umm, OK. And so the day went. We visited a winery where the grape-pressing machine malfunctioned and started projecting grape juice all over the floor.
“That’s never happened before.” The guide said, visibly surprised, while a worker ran for a mop. I couldn’t help think that we were dragging the dysfunctional vibes with us. Don’t get me wrong, we had some fun moments, such as debating whether goats make good pets: are you able to house-break them? Will they eat all your books and pillows? What about ramming issues? Either way, the Posada de las Cabras restaurant, where we stopped for a break, bred goats on the premises so I inquired as to their price.
“USD$250 for a male, USD$500 for a female” The girl behind the counter said, a little surprised that I was asking such a question. Upon further interrogation, she said they were trainable (although this may have just been part of the pitch to get me to buy a goat). Besides my aspirations of goat training, I also revealed to Anna two new business ideas: RetardedBigCats.com which breeds large cats, such a a leopards or jaguars, which suffer from mental problems, leaving them docile.
“We could also remove their claws and teeth.” I said seriously. “And you just need to feed them a meaty Jello and clean up their drool occasionally.”
“You call yourself an entrepreneur? You’re a monster!” She shrieked.
“When that gets shut down for any number of crimes against animals,” I continued, “and more importantly while the genetic engineering is refined, Permapuppies™ will offer the cuteness of puppies right up until their old age, when they’ll probably perish prematurely of hobbling arthritis.” For a moment I could see her expression change to a mask of horror: surely this guy is joking. OK, perhaps I wasn’t being my most romantic self but at this point I was hoping to see Anna display any sign of emotion other than cold detachment, even if it wasn’t going to be passion.
On the way home I kept smelling goat.
“Raul, did you secretly buy me a goat and put it in the truck?” Raul had only only ingested a mixture of coca leaves and coffee all day and his eyes bugged in their sockets.
“Haha! No!” He swerved in the road, avoiding an imaginary obstacle. “It’s the coca leaves. Smell!” He shoved the almost empty green baggie under my nose. Indeed, it smelled like a farm.
We made it home safely and decided to go get some dinner. As we looked at the outside menu of a restaurant near the El Alcazar, I turned around to catch a costumed folk dancer in a wide brimmed hat laughing at me and pointing at my hat, joined by an equally elaborately costumed girl. They both looked away.
“Lets not eat here.” I said and walked back onto the street. Maybe they weren’t laughing at me, I lied to myself to avoid letting my emotions rise. Just then some more laughing came from behind us. I turned around once again to find the folk dancer looking at us and laughing. Now my reactions got the better of me:
“What the hell are you laughing at buddy? My hat?” He stopped laughing and backed into the doorway. “You think I look stupid? Look at your stupid hat!” As soon as I said it I was ashamed at how quickly I had reacted. And of course Anna had been oblivious to the entire exchange and was noticeably surprised which caused a little more embarrassment. As we headed down the street these feelings graduated to a mild, but caustic anger. Unfortunately, the longer we spent together the more annoyed I was getting. In my unbalanced mental state she offered little more than a representation of failure on my part and dishonest intent on hers. After managing to get through dinner without incident we walked home, during which time she remarked multiple times at her tiredness and eagerness to read her book. Each time she said it, what I actually heard was: Don’t think anything is going to happen tonight buddy. I said goodnight to her from my doorway and basically just shut the door in her face. It was actually rather funny in retrospect. In a mere 24 hours if felt like I went through a full and doomed relationship with her, from early hopeful joy, to rocky ground, to raw aversion. I’ll even thank Anna for the great lesson in expectation: hope for the best and expect the worst. The next morning on my way to get a coffee, I saw her across the street and looked the other way as I walked by. That was the last time I saw Anna the Latvian.
After spending the day at a street-side cafe in the central square, I walked over to the bus station and booked my bus ticket south to Mendoza where I planned to spend the final days of my trip sipping local Malbec wine and gathering my thoughts. The bus would depart the following night so I decided to book a horse riding trip to a rural ranch for earlier in the day. After getting back to El Alcazar I enjoyed a Torrontes wine accompanied by a platter of goat cheese from the Posada de las Cabras and dry sausage and olives from a local delicatessen. I blazed through the rest of Ben Elton’s Blind Faith, which was not only an entertaining read but also a fantastic satire on current beliefs through the lens of a ridiculous future society. In a similar way to Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash, it made me consider what it takes to really spread new ideas and beliefs through a society; while it might seem that prompting real change in such a giant system is impossible, you can easily see that its happened numerous times in history so there must be certain protocols and patterns. At the very least it’s an interesting thought experiment and prompts the profound question: if you could spread something throughout society, what would it be?
The day at the ranch, which was actually a two hundred year old, former convent, was not only entertaining but also had a dose of nice synchronicity thrown in. The small group of travelers included me, an older Dutch guy called Fred and three Dutch students that had dressed up like cowboys for the expedition – complete with check shirts, cowboy hats and Marlboro reds. We each got assigned to noble steeds and were given a quick tutorial on how to use the reins. After that we quickly launched into the lush, humid jungle surrounding the ranch. Apart from turning to bite my angle a few times, my horse was well trained and after an hour or so we emerged into an area where we could reach a gallop. The Dutch girl and I led the pack; we sped passed the others and down a path that led through the fields back towards the ranch. We passed grazing horses and a pink church that was built in the 17th century. We galloped though fields of bright purple flowers flanked by forests full of trees covered in fuzzy ‘tree beard’. Eventually, thanks to our horse’s speed and ‘auto pilot’, we arrived back at the ranch a full five minutes before the others, both completely red-faced and exhilarated.
As Miralgo, our polite guide, grilled our lunchtime parrillada I began talking with Fred who turned out to be a really interesting and dynamic guy. Not only is he in the Dutch army reserve, routinely helping in places such as Afghanistan, but he also teaches leadership training courses to Dutch businessmen. His techniques are rooted in spirituality, without really delivering them so explicitly however.
“A lot of spirituality is nice, especially when it comes to understanding personal growth and learning how to lead others. But most people think you’re a little crazy if you get too mystical.” He explained with a wry smile. “I find it more effective to deliver the lessons in other ways. What I’m interested is in making people understand through experience” This is a core technique from Vipassana too, I told him. “Absolutely – very important. For example, I might ask for everyone to count the number of red objects in a room and then to close their eyes. Then I ask how many blue objects they saw.” He erupted into laughter. “It works! It gets them thinking differently – being more aware of the world around them.” Of course he was completely right. To get people really interested, you need to appeal to them with more than just theory – you need to trigger as many senses as possible to emote a deep reaction. We went on to discuss our personal methods for maximizing serendipity and how to keep your life dynamic – of course he liked traveling by himself for the same reasons as me, both to maintain control over your situation and as a recipe for more random interactions. He expressed his interest in the numeric cycles of Mayan time and tried to explain the complex systems to me and the Dutch kids. While interesting it quickly became hard to remember the details and made me realize why I like Vipassana’s teachings so much as they’re so easy to explain. The technique is simple enough for the layperson to learn yet the results are felt almost immediately; both of these traits are crucial if you want something to be spread widely. We parted ways and both seemed pretty sure that we’d meet again.
That night I jumped on the bus for Mendoza, arriving twenty hours later, in the mid afternoon of the next day. The situation that unfolded was somewhat unexpected but luckily my expectation reserves were already depleted so I was more amused than annoyed. I had met a very sweet Israel girl on the bus and together we took a taxi to the main street of hostels and bars. We soon found out that every single hostel on that street was full. Then one kind hostel owner called a bunch more in the surrounding areas – which were also all full. In addition to forgetting that it was Easter weekend and not having made a reservation, we had also arrived on the same day as Operacion Vida, a Christian music festival promoting ‘Amor en Accion’ with a weekend lineup of bands, was scheduled to begin. At that moment an Australian guy entered the hostel, apparently in the same situation.
“Why don’t we all try to find something together?” Netali said.
“Why not? It’ll be fun.” I said with a somewhat forced pleasantry.
That night, after gorging on steak (are you seeing a pattern here?), we crammed ourselves into a tiny, two bedded room that the helpful hostel owner had helped us track down. I was sharing a bed with Brent, the Auzzie, while Netali slept in the bed next to us. I had been imagining my final few days in a peaceful natural setting – and now, in the same bed as Brent’s smelly feet, I couldn’t help but smile at the different plan the cosmos seemed to have for my final days in Argentina.
The next day we headed to Maipu, a town about 30 minutes south of Mendoza, for a wine tasting tour. The great joy is that there are so many wineries in the area – almost 2000 in total – that you can just rent a bike and do a wine tasting bike ride! Argentina, and the Mendoza region in particular is almost unparalleled for wine-making for a variety of fortunate reasons. Besides access to increasingly more sophisticated techniques from international experts, Mendoza occupies a very low rain region area which also happens to have access to large amounts of nearby meltwater from the Andes. This means that local vineyards have almost perfect control over their irrigation. Also the diverse terrain of the surrounding areas means that without going too far, you can have vineyards at varying altitudes which are perfect for different strains of grapes. Furthermore, the climate is well suited for wine production, offering low humidity, and a good variable different in night an day temperatures, simultaneously promoting growth and richness of flavor. As a final benefit on an international level, after the Argentine economy took a dive in 2001, the diminished value of the Peso makes the wine incredibly good value and about 50% of all wine is exported. As we toured a few vineyards we were told about the process and allowed to sample an array of fantastic Malbecs, Cabernet Sauvignons and even a few superb whites. Most surprising to me, and perhaps to some of you, is that there’s only grapes in wine. I know that sounds a little stupid – but I always assumed when they talked of bouquets that contained rich plum, delicate orange zest or a sprinkle of cinnamon, I actually thought that those flavors were added. But it’s all just from the grape (and maybe a little from the barrel it ferments in)!
We ended the day at a place called Club de Olivas, run by a jolly man called Oswaldo. The Club de Olivas specializes in growing olives and sells a variety of infused olive oils and tempanades. After a brief tour of the grove we ended up in the kitchen where Oswaldo explained the full variety of things he created. All sorts of liquors, from Grappa to award winning Irish Creams to Absinthe all were concocted under his watchful eye. He also had a secret recipe for his own Dulce de Leche, mixing them with ingredients like coffee bean chips and coconut. Finally he let us sample his homemade chocolates – which were pretty richly decadent. When I left I expressed my gratitude to Oswaldo:
“I wish you lived in my town, so we could be friends! You’re awesome!” Perhaps I was a little too jolly from the wine; I think he knew I just liked him for his skills in the kitchen.
I was a little inebriated by the end of the day, but that wasn’t the reason I almost fell off my bike. The left pedal had worked loose and finally fell completely off when I put pressure on it. I tried in vain to reattach it, but a crucial nut had been lost along the road. I tried to pedal with only one pedal, which was way more difficult than I imagined, so I found myself walking the final mile back to the rental shop. I found it pretty humorous that before this trip I had imagined the freedom I was going to have with my new motorcycle license, hair blowing in the wind, only to find that it was close to impossible to find motorcycles for rent in the places I visited. The couple of leads that I did find were ridiculously expensive and wanted at least USD$100 a day and a USD$2000 cash deposit. So the closest I got to this freedom was pedaling the day away on a bike in wine country, and now, even that freedom had been stunted. I laughed again at the irony. But in many ways I know that if I had been riding a motorcycle I would have faced a large amount of challenges, from the seemingly endless, windswept expanses of Patagonia to the death threatening cities of La Paz et al. Of course I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a grand adventure – of course it would – but one for another time, when I employ better planning, probably including importing my own bike.
That night we’d moved to a room with three beds and had our own bathroom, but it had no door, which made timing your various bodily processes pretty crucial to avoid group awkwardness. The next morning, over a breakfast that consisted largely of the Dulce de Leche with coconut that I’d bought, I realized this was kind of a ridiculous situation and I had to make a move for my final two nights.
“He guys, well it’s been a super nice time with you. So it’s my last two days and I think I’m going to splash out a bit and get my own place somewhere.” And to make sure there was no hurt feelings: “I need to do some writing and work best in my own space.”
“It’s OK,” Netali said. “I think I’m leaving for Buenos Aires today.”
“Where are you going to go?” Brent asked, a trace of dejection in his tone.
“I don’t know amigo. I’m going to pack up my stuff and go make some calls. But I gotta get out of here.”
I found the local call center and proceeded to make a few phone calls. All hotels in the center were even more full than they’d been before so I turned to the Maipu map and started calling a few of the inns that were listed. At first the places I found were hugely pricey but eventually I got a stroke of luck when I found a more budget one who’d had a cancellation. La Posada Rural was at the southern end of the collection of wineries but seemed like a pleasant and affordable spot – and the kind owner even offered to pick me up from the center of town.
About an hour later I was in a car, speeding through Maipu, speaking in my butchered Spanish to the owner of La Posada Rural. Vicente was a thirty-five year old Mendoza local who’d bought a small farm house some years ago and built some cabins behind it. He ran the business and his widowed mother helped keep the place looking trim. He’d had a girlfriend but they recently broke up.
“She was a little crazy.” He said, whirling his finger next to his head. “But many girls in Argentina are crazy. Are they crazy in America also?”
“Vicente, my friend, they’re crazy all over the world. But we still love them.” We both laughed as he pulled into the gate of La Posada Rural.
Now this is the place that I was imagining for my final few days in Argentina. As we parked under some shady olive trees, a couple of black Labradors bounded up to me, tails wagging. After introducing me to his sweet mother, who insisted I tell her if I needed anything, Vicente led me down a path, under an apple tree, to a line of three two-floor cabins, opening the door of the middle one.
“This is your cabin. I hope you like it.”
“I love it Vicente, you’re awesome. Thank you.” The cabin had the perfect rustic charm combined with modern functionality. The windows were a little loose in their frames but the bathroom was immaculate. The pillows were a little lumpy but the linens were clean. I even had my own kitchen. After dropping my bags I went outside, picked an apple off the tree and went to explore the grounds. Immediately behind the cabins were about thirty rows of grape vines, completely full of juicy, dark grapes. Vicente saw me from across the lawn.
“Tomorrow they are picking all the grapes to make wine.” He shouted. “You can help! And also I can take you to a winery that my friend works at!”
Later that day I found a little bench and read the free sample of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline that I’d downloaded at the beginning of the trip. After tearing through the handful of freebie pages, I immediately wanted to read more. So I powered on the GSM wireless chip of my Kindle, which promptly accessed the Amazon store, and I downloaded the rest of the book for under $10 from the middle of this rural setting, surrounded be vineyards. In a moment of parallel, Brand’s words appeared from thin air and make the case in the first few pages that the real game changer that we have these days in order to help save our environment is technology.
After a quiet evening and deep sleep I awoke on Easter day to my last full day in Argentina. The vineyard was teeming with grape pickers, who were collecting the grapes into baskets and dumping them in to a large truck that was already about half full. Later that morning I visited the Alta Vista winery thanks to Vicente’s connection and was blown away; it was far more impressive than anything we’d seen on our touristy bike tour. Our guide led the small group of tasters, all who’d had to call to reserve a spot, on a tour through the renovated facility. It had been established in 1899 but back then the wine it produced was not of the best quality. Then one hundred years later a French family bought it and began making some radical changes to improve the quality. Now they produce 2 million bottles of wine a year which I thought was huge, until the guide said that some wineries in the area produce 15 million! . Alta Vista’s range of about ten wines, some of which have won multiple medals, all come from about 300 hectares around the region. All of the grapes are brought to this facility for fermenting in large concrete or steel tanks, and when ready, a stint in the oak barrels in the cellar. Then at the end of the process they are bottled up in the next building and either shipped out, in the case of white wines, or aged further, in the case of their reds.
That afternoon, while I was sitting in the garden, making some notes and plotting of my Returning to the States Protocol, Vicente approached me with a small white object in his hand. He held it up as he got near, it was a USB modem.
“My friend, I bring you Internet!” He exclaimed without realizing how dramatic he sounded. And sure enough, from a small garden, surrounded by olive trees and vineyards I went online to send some final, pre-departure emails and find out my flight information. I know I’ve mentioned technology a lot in my writing, but I can’t express deeply enough with how amazed I am with just how online the world actually is. Besides just enabling more ubiquitous Facebookin’ or providing more places you can access pornography (I’m three months clean by the way), the impact that this will have on the future of knowledge dissemination and cross border communication is actually impossible to over-state.
As I collected my thoughts a few things became obviously clear to me. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, I decided that I would not be returning to live in LA full time; the city is just too distracting for me. I remember that when I lived in LA often a week would go by and I’d look back on it, feeling like a lot my time was spent keeping busy, but not actually creating anything. Of course I was continuously working hard to put on the monthly Mindshare events and to keep Syyn Labs moving along, but in terms of my own creative fulfillment, I had felt frustrated and unproductive. Of course I am aware of some my compulsive tendencies so this needs to be carefully considered, but in contrast I can now say, after the last three months, that I feel so amazingly fulfilled though my writing that it’s crucial that I maintain it when I return. And to do that effectively I know I can’t be in LA full time.
On that note, I realized that the last three months of short and cyclic spurts of a city-nature dichotomy was perhaps a perfect balance for me. In truth, most of my work can be done online, which gives me the privileged opportunity to choose where my office is. While taking advantage of this fact I would like to continue to take my meditation practice further, which would simultaneously benefit greatly from a more peaceful setting. I’d actually already begun to set this plan in motion some weeks ago when I’d talked with my LA landlord and he’d offered to let me use the guest room for a part time rental price. With the money that I save each month I can probably find a cabin in the woods, perhaps near the Vipassana center, and still have some money left over!
Time not spent in LA or in a more natural setting, will be spent in San Francisco or otherwise traveling around, crashing from time to time and friends places (at least until they get sick of me). I’m striving to continue a backpacker style existence in my won country – lightweight, agile and dynamic. Meanwhile, I want to continue to write small articles, maybe even finding a large blog or magazine column in which I could regularly document interesting and inspiring experiences. Furthermore I intend to edit all of these South America chapters into a cohesive novel.
In a recent but inspiring moment, I had the idea to sell my sports car (which admittedly has been fun to drive) and get something more suited for the upcoming 2010 road trips. Maybe something that doesn’t require so much maintenance. Maybe something that I could sleep in and not be too uncomfortable. Maybe something that I can strap a surfboard to the top of 😉
As I sat in the garden, nursing a glass of Cabernet, the dog next door started whining and barking. Eventually I got up and after storming across the grass, shot it the meanest look I could muster over the fence that separated us. It immediately shut up and crawled into his dog house. In a moment of insight, I saw a deep metaphor in this complaining mutt: if you’re going to make a lot of noise to attract attention when you finally get it you better have something to say! A lot of my life I feel like I’ve been whining and barking, but not really known why, or what for. Throughout the last three months, starting with a vision that I had at the Vipassana center before leaving, and carrying on through Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, I’ve been thinking deeply on precisely this matter. What is my larger goal on this planet? If anyone finally pays attention to me, then what do I have to say? Improving on my rather nebulous, previously stated goal of helping people engage themselves, each other, and the planet in a more intentional and mindful way – I’ve now begun to see how the various avenues of my life are converging to help achieve this end goal. I’m beginning to refine these thoughts into an interesting insight into human behavior: what makes us tick? What the current overarching problems in the system? How can these deeply ingrained patterns be tuned? I’m exploring the ongoing convergence of science, ethics and spirituality and envisioning what the path forward could look like and how new tools, like technology, will play a unprecedented role. Such progressive ideas are sure to win me support as well as harsh criticism (as early conversations on my travels confirmed) – and I have to be ready for that as I proceed. Together with the input from a few close advisors, I’m working on the first draft for public release in order to begin the conversation and develop the idea further.
My final morning in Argentina was cold and a thin layer of frost adorned the newly naked vines. After a breakfast of eggs (it seems like some a mouse got into the bread during the night, which now lay scattered on the counter) I packed up my things and loaded them in to Vicente’s car; the generous host had even been kind enough to offer me a ride to the airport. As we sped down the country lane, past endless rows of grape vines, small irrigation canals and gently swaying weeping willows Vicente exclaimed:
“Baby Jesus! It’s cold this morning!” He rubbed his hands together, while keeping the wheel steady with his knee. “It is the end of Summer. Now it is Autumn.” He was right. By coming down to Argentina I’d exchanged our winter for their summer and now it was beginning to get colder. Whereas Autumn would soon descend on the southern hemisphere, I was returning to the beginning of our Spring. Suitably, this prompted the realization that now was a moment to define, embrace and actuate the changes needed in my life. An imminent vector shift.
Ghandi once said that “we must be the change we wish to see in the world”. We don’t need a special occasion or date to make a change, just an awareness of the power of the present moment. After all, the present moment is the only thing that we truly possess.