Tuesday, December 31, 2013


It seems appropriate as I try to catch up with months of backlogged stories to write one about Bariloche as I say my goodbyes to the town that was my home base here in Patagonia.

I arrived in mid-October, in the dark, on a night bus from the Volcano Fun Town of Pucón across the Andes in Chile, having crossed the border on the Araucaria (monkey puzzle tree)-covered flanks of Volcán Lanín. I was exhausted from heartache, on a heavy day of my period, and fighting off the remnants of a cold. My first glimpse of Bariloche was as a string of yellow glitter: lights lining the invisible shoreline of Lago Nahuel Huapi as the bus rode south down the opposite shore of the lake. My feeling on seeing that string of lights was one of reluctance—it meant the end of living in little cabins in the mountains, my return to a city, a return to a schedule and noise and people and stress.

View from the bus on the drive from San Martín de los Andes to Bariloche

But I tried to be optimistic. Bariloche is a ski town. It’s billed as the “Switzerland of Argentina”. My friend Ellen (of EllenAndTom from my time in Malargüe and Las Leñas) had said it was one of her two favorite places in all of skiable South America. Sure, it’s a city, but it’s a little one, and one sandwiched between big mountains and a beautiful lake, like a Lake Tahoe with real spines for mountains. It’s famous for great beers, excellent steak, and the best chocolate in the chocolate desert that is Chile and Argentina. I like beer, I like steak, I love chocolate. On the bus I learned from my seatmate that Bariloche is home to several universities and research centers and a high tech industry, a great place to live, study, and work. “This is the sort of place you’re looking for,” I told myself.

Bariloche didn’t steal my heart. But I had a really great time there.

Bariloche at night.

In the streets of Bariloche, that's a big mountain at the end of the street.

Hanging out with friends at the lake.

The bus pulled into the station and I shared a taxi to my hostel on the outskirts of town with my seatmate, who lived nearby. I arrived shortly after 10pm and the hostel owner Brian was waiting for me, welcoming me by name, and showing me to my room. The ski area had just shut down for the season that day, low season had officially started, and the hostel was almost empty. I had a room to myself. I met the two other residents of the hostel: Anneke, who would soon become a good friend, and an Irish guy there for a few days. I settled in and went to sleep, my month of Spanish classes beginning the next morning.

Check-in at the Green House Hostel. Check out the Orondo, WA Cider Works sticker! Homestate pride!
Laundry line in my bunk = hostel life

I woke up to sun streaming in through my window and views of the lake, which I hadn’t seen in the dark of the night of my arrival. By the time I showered, dressed, and grabbed breakfast, I was running quite late, and got lost as I hiked up the dirt road to the school, a trend that would repeat itself for the rest of the month (except the getting lost part) despite my daily efforts to go to bed earlier, wake up earlier, and finally, finally, be there on time.

Having already picked up most of the really basic basics between six weeks of attempting to communicate with people in Malargüe and Chile and the learn-Spanish podcasts I had been listening to periodically for the past few months, I was placed in “Basico II” and pleased to not have to start at the very, very beginning (I had learned something! Yay!). And so it began with verb conjugation on Day 1 with Ivonne, my firey crackup of a teacher.

Day 1 of Spanish class

I quickly settled into a schedule for the following month that looked something like this:

8:15 Wake up, shower, get dressed
8:50 Grab a handful of toast, slap on jam, run out the door…late, again
9:05 Arrive at school, coffee
9:10 Vamos! Spanish with Ivonne
10:30 Cookie and coffee break
10:45 Continuamos! More Spanish with Ivonne
12:15 Class over, grab groceries or empanadas on the way back down the hill to the hostel
12:45 Make/eat lunch, start homework or work for the day
19:00 Make dinner
19:30 More homework/work
24:00 Clean up, brush teeth, bed, read
24:30 Sleep

The notable exceptions to the routine were Tuesdays and Thursdays, tango nights! when I’d dress up and go to tango lessons and dance in my socks (didn’t have shoes I could dance in, and never managed to work up enough desire to go shopping for them to do it) for an hour or two with new friends, then go out for some of that legendary Bariloche beer. Also, I had my weekly date with Fernando at the Club Andino mountaineering club when I’d wander in to get tips for where to go over the weekend and how to get there and he’d show me pictures, show me the routes, talk me out of really bad ideas, and wish me luck. And my weekly visit to my adopted dad at the local second-hand gear shop where I’d rent crampons, talk routes and conditions, get more tips, and get talked back into some of my really bad (= awesome) ideas, and rent crampons every Thursday afternoon. 

Because weekends were for mountains.

Crampons latched into the bindings of my snowboard, stuffed, with my backpacking pack, into the seat of a bus from Bariloche to Mountains on a Friday afternoon.

Mountains like these.

After getting gear, finalizing plans, and packing Thursday afternoons, going dancing with my rug-cutting guitar-rocking local engineer friend José Thursday evenings, I’d wake up Fridays for a few hours of Spanish, grab my backpack and splitboard, stash the rest of my stuff in the hostel storage closet, check out for the weekend, and run to the hills, not to return until Sunday evening in time to make dinner, do my homework, and crash for Monday’s Spanish class.

It was a pretty good work hard, play harder life. I learned a lot of Spanish. I got a heap of writing done, got a paper submitted, applied to jobs, and splitboarded a lot of nice Andean terrain. By the time the weekend rolled around I’d be totally drained, exhausted, sleep-deprived, zeroed on motivation, brain-dead, and grumpy. Then I’d haul my butt and my board up into those spectacular peaks, sleep out in the snow, breathe in that cold, dry air, say hello to my soul, and return recharged.

Me, saying hello to my soul. Lago Nahuel Huapi in the background.

And that x 4 weeks was pretty much how Bariloche went down. The routine was punctuated by a few special and memorable moments, like the time I met part of the Green House Hostel family on a secluded beach down the street to sit and drink local beer while we watched the sun set over the stunning turquoise water of the lake. Or the time a friend-of-a-friend who had spent 6 months in winter in Antarctica randomly met me at a bar where my friend José was performing, having hitchhiked all the way north from Ushuaia. Or the time after a late night of studying I finally joined the festivities for hostel owner Brian’s birthday party and was surprised by a cheeseless pizza his awesome girlfriend Candy had baked (and then by Anneke’s amazing and Benadryl-worthy dulce de leche birthday cake). Then there was the wild night where a group of Porteños (guys from Buenos Aires) showed up at the hostel and turned it into a wild party, trading besos for steak (the best of my life, really) and shots of fernet all night.

Fun bar time.
Fun steak time.

There were the gut-bustingly funny and often touching conversations with Ivonne, my Spanish teacher, in my broken Spanish and her endless patience, on love, philosophy, religion, and science. Beers and dinners and a tour of a very special plane with a friend from Spanish class. The trip with friends to La Cruz, a local favorite cervezeria walking distance from the hostel , where after 3 ½ weeks of Spanish lessons I was finally able to start following and even participating in the conversations of the Argentines around me. Finally, the going-away asado at the hostel, the hugs goodbye, and the genuinely traded, “I’m going to miss you.” I had found a sort of family there in Bariloche among the friendly and fun-loving, outdoorsy, beer-loving, meat-grilling folk there, and although I was ready to move on, wished I could take them all with me.

Six weeks later, I ended up taking my family back to Bariloche instead (story of the Frantz Family Christmas in Bariloche to come).

To all of you dear people who I met there, thank you for making it home, thank you for the fun, the conversations, the food, the beers, the dancing, the love, the unforgettable good times, and for your friendship. I hope we meet again, and mi casa es su casa, no importa en qué lugar del mundo que pasa a ser!

Pretty lake
Awesome mountains
Good friends

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