"estan tocando el delfin."
"muy bien!" exclaimed carolina, my spanish professor in mendoza, argentina.
i looked back down at the magazine opened before me, at the picture of four children in a chlorine pool petting a dolphin.
i looked back up at carolina with a huge smile on my face. "now that is why i am studying spanish, so i can say useful things like 'they are touching the dolphin.' that phrase can get you out of any jam."
carolina laughed. i always liked to make her laugh. she is a fantastic teacher, person, friend. at first she was just my teacher but then after a week of classes i broke my back and carolina was the one the doctors called - she was the only person i knew in mendoza at that point.
"estan tocando el delfin" didn't rescue me then, carolina and her husband david did. they will always have a comfortable home in my grateful memory after bailing me out of that wretched situation, the worst of this trip and, perhaps, of my life. caro and david became my life-long friends that day.
a week before my back incident and for four weeks following, i had a great time in mendoza, there at the foot of the second highest mountain range in the world, the fertile heart of the wine region in argentina.
mmmm, mmmm! ever try malbec? the red wine? go get some. although don't expect to pay only $2-$4 for a great bottle like you do in mendoza; you'll have to pay a bit more but it will be worth it.
ask debra (dobja) my sister what she thinks of it. she was here. she didn't expect to be but the slippery steps of that hostel staircase made it happen. "michael broke his back in argentina" means "purchase a plane ticket" in dobja's language. a couple days after my fall i was speaking with her on the telephone from my hospital bed when she said "guess what?"
"what?" i said, even though i knew what she was going to say.
"i'll be there on thursday."
dobja had no problem spending a small fortune to fly 10 hours from los angeles to argentina for only a four day visit to see her ailing brother.
she would come see me on jupiter if i wound up there.
have you told your family recently how much you love them? do it, and then come back to this update. you won't get very far without the love and support of your friends and family. make sure they know how much you appreciate them.
BONO: sometimes you can't make it on your own.
RINGO STARR: i get by with a little help from my friends.
they don't write lyrics like that merely because they are catchy - you need people and that's ok. yes, i've done this trip on my own but if it weren't for the people i've met along the way and my loved ones back home i'd be sitting on a couch in a plain, dark, safe room wondering what life is all about.
life is about turning shit into sunshine, lava into love, and broken bones into springboards, much more easily and enjoyably done with friends.
i understand. you want me to clarify. here you go:
i break my back and lie in a hospital room for six days. david and carolina come over everyday to see me and make sure that the spanish speaking staff is understanding me. david is from the u.s. and we talk a lot about home, about my trip, about what i am doing for work.
"i don't work but i am writing. i want to write for a living. i am done with corporate stuff, stuff i don't care about," i say to david. "i love to write."
a week later i am out of the hospital, eating dinner at a place called cocina poblano with david, carolina, and charlie. charlie is an editor for a local magazine. we talk.
MIKE: i want to be a writer, charlie.
CHARLIE: write me an article, mike.
i write charlie an article. he likes it and decides to publish it in his local wine magazine. he pays me in wine.
so i break my back and then turn that into a beginning, a humble beginning yes, but a beginning. a beginning that would not have happened without my friend david.
the beginning of what i want to do for a living. write. teach. entertain.
after all the back business was behind me, i had a great time entertaining for five weeks at the weekly asados at the damajuana hostel, playing guitar and singing for everyone after the food was gone. an asado is a festival of meat, an argentine barbecue with chicken, beef, and sausage. plenty of wine to drink of course. salad and bread as well. if you don't like the wine drink a quilmes beer or a frenet and coke, which tastes like heavily sugared cough syrup and gets you drunk, smashed, pummelled, high.
high like the andes. when dobja visited we took a bus tour into the mountains, where we saw an ancient stone bridge, natural hot springs baths, and aconcagua, the tallest peak in the andes.
dobja then took off and so did my spanish. it is a goal of mine to be bi-lingual and through caro's instruction i am well on my way. i studied with her for a month and now have the confidence to walk into any restuarant, bar, store, wherever, and speak with the locals. i had full, real, conversations with the very patient staff of the hostel in mendoza. what a great feeling. i loved mendoza.
but after 6 weeks i was ready for a change of scenery. buenos aires, the largest city in argentina, the capital, called. i rode on a bus for 16 hours and, when i arrived, i figured i must have boarded a plane accidently - i was back in europe!
nope, still in south america but buenos aires sure looks european, like a combination of lisbon, madrid, and paris. fortunately the prices aren't european. one american dollar buys you three argentine pesos and the prices usually look like this:
steak: 15 pesos
liter of beer: 4 pesos
16 hour bus ride: 90 pesos
since i knew i would be returning to BA, i didn't do much aside from party at the milhouse hostel. i met alexis from chicago there, an arranged meeting with a chick i had been exchanging e-mails with for a year but had never met. we hung in BA a bit and then spent about two and a half weeks exploring the region together.
from BA, we went with a few other friends to iguazu falls, cataratas de iguazu in spanish.
my lord, what happened here?
my words are worthless in describing iguazu. i refuse to even try. the power, the majesty, the thunder, the massive crush of water, plummeting violently to the earth - it's astounding. the setting is other-wordly; lush jungle penetrated by a wide brown river that rushes to it's unending death over a rocky lip, decorated with rainbows, and continually resounding with the music made when gravity consumes endless sheets of suspended, heavy water. we visited iguazu twice, each time walking along all three of the unobtrusive, simple wooden paths the argentines have built for visitors to experience the falls. stunning, thoroughly stunning.
that wasn't enough though and so on the second day we boarded a motorized rubber raft that took us on a bumpy, wet ride right to the base of two of the falls. just like i learned when surfing in sydney, australia, moving water is a mighty, merciless force. we pitched around in the boat like a piece of lint in a washing machine. we left the boat, soaked with water and exciting memories.
i could have gone back the next day again but uruguay called. please, if you ever get a chance, go to iguazu falls; i have seen a lot of the world but have never seen a natural wonder the equal of it.
alexis and i boarded a bus the next day that was to take us to the border of uruguay, a 12 hour ride. at about 6:30 the next morning, the bus attendant woke us up and said "colonia." i had expected that we would be taken to a bus station in a fairly major city, but when i pulled aside the curtains and looked out the window all i saw were barren fields and some abandoned buildings. they were dumping us at the side of the highway. but guess what?
i wasn't concerned. and neither was alexis. no need to shout "estan tocando el delfin."
we just gathered our things, walked down the stairs to the bottom level, and, before exiting, asked the attendant which way uruguay was. he pointed in a direction, slammed the door shut, and the bus lurched back onto the highway leaving us roadside with our backpacks on our backs.
we looked towards uruguay, wondering how long it would take to walk there, wondering if the building we saw in the distance was the border. we didn't have a map of the area, weren't sure of which way to walk or how far it was - but we didn't care. we have both traveled the world and have seen it all. in an islamic country this would be a little more unsettling, but there, in uruguay, where no one hassles you for food or money, nor peddles drugs, we were both relaxed.
and of course the cab that pulled up helped.
often times, when you get dumped nowhere, there is an opportunistic bus driver, cab driver, tuk-tuk driver, someone with a vehicle, waiting for you. after a minute or so of discussing our options, the cabbie caught our attention.
we loaded our stuff in his car and he drove us to the bus station in town. it was a long way and we were glad to not have attempted the walk. we bought a ticket for a bus that would take us over the border and into the closest major town in northwestern uruguay - salto.
from there we bought a bus ticket to montevideo, the capital of uruguay. fellow travelers have told me to avoid montevideo but i found it nice. lots of fancy, old buildings, nice squares, pleasant people. as we rode on the bus we watched a couple do the tango at a sidewalk cafe.
we spent a night there and then took a bus to punta del este - south america's most exclusive resort they say.
if it's the most exclusive i'd hate to see the most inclusive. there was nothing really special about the place, exacerbated by the fact it was the off-season and almost every restaurant and bar was closed. we spent two easy days there, enjoying runs along the atlantic ocean and rio de la plata, and eating at empty restaurants. we discovered a great uruguayan wine called tannat.
we headed then to colonia del sacramento, a town settled by the portuguese in 1680.
and that is where i am as i write this.
i was going to spend just two days here but i am staying for a week since i like the place so much. the roads are cobblestone, the buildings are made of stone, the streets are quiet, and the people are nice. another wonderful thing about the streets here is the cars driving down them: model-t fords, the first cars invented, bump along the uneven streets like it's still the 1920s. i have seen convertible model-ts that have me jerking my head to prolong my visual thrill, but here they are an everyday site. amazing. so i am relaxing and writing a lot now. i know across the river the excitement of buenos aires is endless, so i am taking my time here.
i will cross the rio de la plata on the slow ferry tomorrow, friday, october 7. i will enjoy the three hour journey that will take me across the wide brown river, back to buenos aires, back to tango, back to the insane milhouse hostel, back to the cheap steaks, back to several locals friends, and back to THE best bang-for-your-buck country i have ever been to. don't cry for me argentina - i'm coming back for more.
and maybe, just maybe, as i cross the water, by some freak occurrence, i will see some people reaching down from a sailboat, petting that familiar gray marine creature and i'll get a chance to stand tall on deck, stab a finger towards them, project my voice and shout:
"ESTAN TOCANDO EL DELFIN!!!!"
man, i really, really hope so - i'm using that phrase before i leave south america.
is that you i hear laughing, caro?
keep on keepin' on,
the photos for this update start here.
p.s. chile? ehhh. santiago sucked.