A Mendoza story.

Mendoza, Argentina, that is. We went to Mendoza for the wine. Why else does one go to Mendoza? It’s in the desert, it’s shoved up against the foothills of the tallest mountain in the Americas, and in June, it’s freezing. All that being said, Mendoza is stunning.

To enter Mendoza from Santiago, Chile, we flew over the Andes. I had nightmares for weeks previous about the book Alive, but although the flight was a little turbulent, I felt (mostly) safe. Safe enough that I was able to look out the window to see the awesome peaks far below us. We then touched down in the middle of a vineyard. The doors of the plane opened, and we stepped out into a blinding desert morning reflected in the tarmac, the smell of burning wood in the air. I felt like Jackie O. walking down that stairwell and making my way into a foreign airport.

It didn’t take long for this feeling to wear off.

Fast-forward an hour or so waiting for our baggage and to get through customs, all at eight or so in the morning. No breakfast back in coach. Then, there are the money issues. I can’t take out money at the ATM, and Max can take out money but we can’t find anyone to give us coins small enough to get our sorry butts onto a bus and into the city (for more info on the moneda issue, read a great blog “expat argentina” here). The woman at the tourist counter tells us to go ahead and get on the bus.

We get on the bus.

The bus driver doesn’t seem all that concerned when we don’t have monedas to pay. We drive for about 5 minutes into a neighborhood. Ok, neighborhood is being nice. It’s a slum. Cars on blocks, bars on windows, trash in streets, no one around, but there is a bus station. The bus driver tells us to get off the bus, so we get off the bus. There are a few people who are standing at the bus station, and so I look at Max, and he’s getting his share of the bags and so I gather my things and start moving, too. Off the bus.

Before I left, my father gave me a little advice. “Remember,” he said, “most of the world is a pretty safe place.”

I hoped he was thinking about this little part of the world.

Max informed me that the lady at the tourist desk (remember, I don’t speak any Spanish, so he’s constantly translating) told him that we would be stopped at a station and there we would have to take another bus, number 23 or 28.

We stood there. A woman shambled up and asked me for change, I looked confused enough that she shrugged and shambled away to stub out the cigarette butt she was smoking (yes, she was actually smoking the filter). Max was able to get us enough change from the ticket counter for us to ride the bus. I kept my eyes moving and tried to breathe and repeat my new mantra, “Most of the world is a pretty safe place. Most of the world is a pretty safe place.” It worked. I calmed down a little. I could move my fingers on my grey Nordstrom shoulder bag.

Buses came and went. People raised their hands as their bus moved up to the gate and they climbed on board, they seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. They knew they would not be late to work or to visit their sister downtown.

After about 20 minutes of hopping from one foot to the other, adjusting the straps on our backpacks, shrugging our shoulders at one another and searching frantically for the numbers on the buses, our bus was there. Max put in his monedas, and moved to a seat, putting his backpack in the seat next to him. I put in my monedas, and my one peso coin was rejected. I tried again. It was rejected again. The bus driver had already started moving, but I was standing there, panicked, feeling like a fool because I couldn’t get a bus ticket machine to work. Max was exasperated as he had to come up to the front again to help me, but I knew it wasn’t my fault. The bus driver was looking at us in the rear view as he was pulling over to his next stop, two gringos, putting coins into the machine over and over again, until finally, of course, the machine is clogged. No coins come out. No coins go in.

The bus driver pulls over. He gets out of his seat as he opens the door and people begin to come onto the bus, not expecting his girth to fill his path, they are pushed back. He actually one of the would-be passengers as leverage to pull himself toward the clogged machine. “Gah!” he says and strikes the machine. A cascade of coins, my coins, fall from the machine.

“No! No bueno!” he says, knowing we gringos understand at least this little bit, and holds up my one peso coin. It is marred on the side, as though it had been caught in the lawnmower or bounced off the sidewalk. A little defect in a precious coin in a country without coins. Max dug in his pocket, found another peso, and we bought my ticket.

The bus continued to drive through slums, the city just didn’t seem to get any better the longer we rode. Max and I were not sitting in the same row, he was sitting behind me. At one point I suggested he move up with me because the bus was getting crowded, but we didn’t. Eventually we did move our bags onto our seats to allow some women to sit with us (ok, they were giving us dirty looks because we weren’t offering them our seats automatically. This is a HUGE no-no on buses in Latin America). This ended up being our saving grace that day, or at least what saved us about an hour of riding around on a bus.

The ladies were talking, some were gesturing toward me, and Max asked them if there was a “problem,” to which they replied that they were wondering where we were going. Max replied we were going to the area of Salta, and then asked if we were on the correct bus. The ladies discussed this for a moment, and decided that yes, we were on the correct bus. Then, the lady who was in charge of the group got off the bus. One of the other ladies who was standing by said, “No, faulta (false),” you are not going to Salta, you are going somewhere else. Let me ask this other lady. The next lady said she was going to Salta, and she would ask the bus driver. The bus driver said he was going to Salta, but that it was going to be an hour.

Confused yet? Imagine all of this happening in a language you don’t understand.

Lady who was also going to Salta said that she was going to get off the bus and take another way to her destination. We were to follow her. We assumed we were going to take a taxi. She ended up paying for our bus fare, instead, which was just as well, because as we were on that bus, we passed right by the Plaza Independencia, where there are fountains that look like they are running with wine. There, Max and I got down from the bus on our own volition, thanking the woman with the red hair and big sunglasses who directed us to the city center.

And the Plaza was gorgeous. Not all of the fountains were working, but the stray dogs here were puppies playing with teenagers. And there were couples sunning on the lawn. There was a man playing the full guitar solo to “November Rain” on an amp in the middle of the amphitheater. It was almost too perfect, but Mendoza, on that chilly June day, seemed like a very safe place.

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