Friday, September 10, 2010


When not studying or hanging out with Rotarians, I spend a decent portion of my time here enjoying my favorite sport and pastime: rock climbing. Though a flat desert itself, the city of Mendoza is perfectly nestled at the feet of the mighty Andes, the vast mountain range that runs north to south through all of South America. The Andes are the world’s longest mountain chain, and its highest peak, Mount Aconcagua— at 22,841ft the tallest in the world outside the Himalayas—sits only 100miles from the city. Thus, Mendoza is the jumping off point for thousands of summit hopefuls and otherwise adventurers each year and, as such, home to a significant number of outdoorsy-type Argentines who work as mountain guides during the summer months. During a good season, these guides can make almost a year’s worth of wages in just 3 months, and they spend the rest of the year doing odds jobs here and there but mostly just taking advantage of the seemingly endless spectacular climbing spots around Argentina and the region. Lucky for me, I arrived just as the Aconcagua season was winding down and they were eager to get climbing again, so I’ve had some great opportunities to join in these mountain adventures.

It is amongst these mountain crazies (and a few others with slightly more traditional career trajectories but no less love for rocks) that I’ve finally come to find community. It’s a bit of a shift from the Rotary crowd, where folks actually speak Spanish (as opposed to Argentine climber slang, which I’m sometimes convinced is an entirely separate dialect) and everyone has, well, showered recently, but I’ve come to love the group—with all its eccentricities—nonetheless. And now I’ve given you all fair warning if I come back smelling a little funny and speaking unidentifiable Spanish.

Beyond the Aconcagua guides, we’re a mixed bag of students and professionals—a journalist, a doctor, an architect, a physical therapist, a yoga instructor, a community organizer (me!), and various geologists—who live very different lives by day, but by evening and weekend we always come together to share our love for the mountains and (in their cases, at least) the terrible pizza and beer of Mendoza. We mostly hangout at “El Club,” or the Club Andanista of Mendoza, which has a climbing wall for training during the week. It’s a bit of a shift from what I now realize where the luxurious climbing walls at UNC, but I’ve come to appreciate its quirks, namely: the absence of any set ropes or routes; the ipod incapable of playing anything but Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “Rock Nacional;” the over-shared, under-washed mate that always offers weak yerba and tepid water; the missing wall (which I appreciate more now that winter has passed); and, most of all, the wall cat, who, with his accidental dreads (formed more from lack of combing than from intention, I think) is more like a real Argentine climber than I could ever hope to be.

We also meet up a couple times a week for yoga classes, an “English-only” hour (almost all Argentines know a bit but most have little to no chance to use it, so after a few failed attempts at formal classes, we’ve settled on an informal weekly chat to get them practicing), running or mate-ing in the park, the occasional cumpleaƱos celebration, and, of course, more bad pizza and beer.

Every weekend I can I flee the city with them to enjoy the seemingly endless natural beauty of Mendoza and surrounding provinces and to do as much climbing as I can before I head back to anti-elevation New Orleans. And beyond the excellent climbing, camping with Argentines is pretty high-class, as well. Since good wine pretty much runs in their blood, at least here in Mendoza, and the asado (or roast/BBQ) is as much a habit as brushing one’s teeth, we always finish a hard day climbing enjoying good food and drink around a bonfire. Lucky for me there are one or two other vegetarians in the group, so I don’t feel too bashful when I suggest buying a few more veggies to throw onto the grill. Roadside produce stands, as well as folks selling vino patero (homemade wine, named for the old process of squishing the grapes with one’s feet, or pateando, during the winemaking process), olives, cheese, and preserves, are omnipresent along the routes to climb, and outside the city it’s all dirt cheap. And lucky for us, the route to what is probably the most impressive climbing spots I’ve ever seen, Arenales, passes through a little town that boasts the best walnuts, apples, and honey in the region. Mmmm!On an unrelated but must-mention note, on the way to climb last weekend we passed through a different little town, Pocitos, that would be entirely unmemorable but for one small and surprising landmark. Right in the middle of the Plaza Central of this tiny San Juanian town is nothing other a human-size version of the Statue of Liberty! As the story goes, years and years ago the statue was bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, but someone along the way got their lines crossed and no one realized until it showed up on San Juan, Argentina (the province due north of Mendoza). How it ended up in tiny Pocitos is unclear, but nonetheless there it stands today, announcing Argentina’s liberty and independence, 9 de Julio, Argentine flag blowing proudly behind. So there.

Just returned from adventuring in the Sierras of Cordoba—mountains full of great climbing and rustic pueblos surrounding Argentina’s second largest city—but once I've settled back in look for an entry on a fascinating discussion from class last week on the incompatibility of capitalism and widespread social change that still has me thinking!

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