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Engaging life like a Bull

I quit the climbing gym today. Erin’s probably going to be a bit miffed, it’s true, but for the wrong reasons. It’s not for financial reasons, though our weekend-long budgeting session did provide some impetus for the decision. We’re trying to buy a house, and it looks like it might actually take some money. Money that we’ll have to find somewhere.

So, while finances may have spurred me on, it’s not the real reason. The real reason is that I’m not prioritizing climbing enough. I hadn’t been going regularly, I had been finding it more and more difficult to get in the car, drive 35 minutes out there and 35 minutes back. When I actually made it to the gym, I would only climb for an hour or so. I never got into the groove, never settled into a group of people, didn’t really enjoy it the way I used to. I’m not exactly the most outgoing of people, but I’m not totally social awkward, either. Two years of traveling helped me develop some skills to meet new people, but I still hang back. If I had to classify myself between the wallflower and the social butterfly, I’m somewhere along the lines of a friendly fern.

What’s the reason to quit, then? I felt bad that I was unable to devote the time to climbing that the others were. Who’s able to head out to the mountains 3 days a week? Oh, wait, that was me just a little bit ago. But certainly not anymore. It was frustrating to be in the midst of the climbing community, where total devotion is par for the course. I’ll never be a great climber. But I do enjoy it.

ChancosBut more than that, it’s mostly the fact that climbing was a way of holding onto our trip. It was a time that I could sit and remember our motorcycle trip in South Africa, where we went climbing and met a fantastic couple who invited us for a braai. I would remember climbing in Peru, where an incredibly old woman walked past us with 40 sheep while I was stuck on a wall. The multiple trips in Argentina, my two day course in Arenales, our time in Idaho. I’d even look back to the days when I worked at Ibex Climbing Gym for pennies.

It’s not a bad thing to reminisce. I know well that this recent memory of our trip, while still fresh in my mind, is a precious moment. I started my travel life long ago with my family, and I fondly remember both family and solo trips. But how fresh are these memories? How well can I remember the places, the people, their names, the details that blur into the past? It gets less and less the farther back the memories go.

I spent a year in Mexico in 2000-2001. 11 years ago this fall, I left high school, hopped on a place, and landed in Mexico City to embark on an incredible journey of great experiences, horrible mistakes, and hilarious stories that I no longer tell because the details become lost in the many stories. I’ve written most of them down, and I occasionally pull them out and wonder at my own naivety, brash behavior and beginner’s mind.

During college, I took several trips, including some incredible places like Antarctica, Peru, South Africa and a 4,000 mile solo road trip from Austin to New York City and back. After college, I spent 3 1/2 months touring SE Asia. These are experiences that I hold very dearly and remember well, sometimes laughing to myself about a joke that is one hundred percent inexplicable unless you’ve been there along the road with me.

For instance, people have asked where I learned to ride a bike. I can tell you the exact place: Vang Vienne, Laos. Even the mention of that town makes me smile with a happy memory of learning to ride a moped and getting stuck in a huge puddle of clay. I was eventually pulled free by a very old tractor. An honest to goodness diesel tractor from the 40s, pulling a cart of people who all tried to help. I rode my moped back into town by way of an hour long ride on a wooden tractor-cart.

I started up a massive Harley we had rented for Erin’s birthday, and I was immediately taken back six years to that red moto. Train rides make me think of playing my guitar on a 20 hour train ride in Burma through rice paddies. Large shrimp make me think of Zanzibar, and now make me think of my first date with Erin, where she didn’t believe that U-2 shrimp could exist. Pickles takes me back to Texas, little league baseball games and watermelon.

Having these specific items that transport me back to a certain time and place is no different than anyone else. It’s simply part of our nature to have triggers that remind us of certain things. But lately, I’ve been feeling like I’ve been remembering too much. I’ve been too strongly stuck where we’ve been, dwelling on our past events. I haven’t been preparing for our future, and even worse, I haven’t been fully enjoying the present.

I’m letting go of our trip, little by little. And quitting the climbing gym is a part of that process for me, strange as that may seem. I plan on continuing climbing, but not in the way I’ve been. I need a new gym, a new perspective on the sport, and most likely a break from it. I’m enjoying our life in Durham to an incredible degree, but I haven’t committed myself 100% to our present, which is a shame.

I’m loving my job, I even paid to have the opportunity to spend a three day weekend programming. Yes, I actually gave money to an organization to allow me to do what I do for work, on the weekend. That’s how much I’m enjoying the type of work I’m doing now. It’s fun. I get to spend 10-12 hours a day behind a computer unraveling the intricacies of electronics. It’s a fascinating and beautiful rabbit hole that engulfs me completely, to the point where I can’t even talk if I’m programming. (Ask Erin, she’ll verify this.)

We’re trying to buy a house. It’s a huge venture for us, and it scares both of us to the bones, but being scared of something certainly doesn’t stop us from doing it. It’s certainly no scarier than attending a football match in Zimbabwe. Not even close.

We’re meeting new people, slowly but surely. We’ve got some new friends here that we enjoy, we’re understanding our new city and state a little bit more each week, finding the odd quirks that keep us interested. Things like the incredible sweet tooth of southerners. (North Carolina is the south?) The terrible mash that they call barbecue. The sweltering humid air that hits you like dragon breath when you walk outside. The general fear of snow. It’s amazing.

It’s difficult to let go of our trip. But, slowly, I’m releasing my fingers one at a time to focus on what’s in front of us. It certainly helps that these are incredibly exciting times for us, so I find it easier and easier to look forward and engage life head on. Like a bull.

Wines We Enjoy…

So…  As has become evident by our blogs, our time and our interests, we enjoy wine.  We’ve been in Argentina about 22 weeks.  We spent 8 days touring vineyards, tasting about 15-20 wines per day on those days.  While we lived here, we tasted probably about 4 new wines a week.  So… that’s a lot.  We’ve estimated that we’ve probably tried at least 70 Malbecs, not even mentioning blends.

Therefore… we thought that people would enjoy knowing what wines we liked.  This isn’t a complete list, just ones that we decided we would search for when we had the money to buy them.  Some are expensive, some cheap, most in the middle somewhere.  The list is in no particular order.

Whites
Caelum Rose
Pulenta Chardonnay
Trumpter Malbec Rose Sparkling
Altavista Atemportal Sparkling
Yacochuya Torrontes
La Garde Viognier
Bressia Canela (Char/Viognier)
Mariflor Sauvignon Blanc
Malbecs
Krontiras Malbec Reserva
Pulenta Malbec
Sin Fin Malbec
Sangre de los Andes Malbec
Punta Final Reserva Malbec
Enamore
Enrique Foster Malbec Reserva
Viña Amalia Malbec
Fin del Mundo Malbec Reserva
Yacochuya Malbec
Monteviejo Lindaflor Malbec
Clos de Chacras Gran Estirpe Malbec
Doña Silviniña Malbec Reserva
Val de Flores Malbec
Blends
Azul Reserva Blend
O.Fournier A Crux
B Crux
Clos de los Siete Clos de los Siete
Bressia Conjuro
Vistalba Corte B
Corte C
Others
Caelum Cab Sauv
DV Catena Syrah – Syrah
Lorca Petit Verdot
Ricominciare Cab Franc/Cab Sauv
Carmelo Patti Cabernet Sauvignon
Benegas Libertad Vineyard Syrah
BL Cab Franc
BL Meritage
Errazuriz Seña

Cafayate in all it’s glory.

Well well well, so we’re back from Cafayate. It was only a mere 22 hour bus ride, but we’re back. It seems fitting that our last big bus ride would be an overly long one. And that it was. We left Mendoza on Tuesday night at 9pm, arriving at Tucuman around 10:30am. Cafayate Luckily, we had planned in advance and purchase a swanky bus ticket so that we would arrive rested and ready to taste some wine. It was nice. Full 180° seats are absolutely the best. In addition, we were served a hot meal and had an open bar. A couple glasses of wine, a full belly, and I was ready to sleep. A 12:00 bus to Cafayate arriving at 5pm meant that it was a mere 20 hours to get there. We checked into our hostel, walked around for a bit, then hit the bed. We had a big day ahead of us.

The next day was pretty simple in theory. Cafayate We would rent bikes, tootle around the vineyards, taste some wines, have a lunch, then come back to the hostel. The morning activity worked out just fine. We picked up a couple of old one-speed bikes and headed out of town to visit Etchart Bodega. The tour was pretty normal, especially given that Etchart is a massive winery, one of the biggest in the region. But it was enjoyable, especially since we were tasting Torrontes. This is emblematic of the region and one of the main reasons we came. Folklore says that it is only grown in the Cafayate area, which adds a little extra something to it.

Following Etchart, we pedeled to Lavaque, Cafayate who told us that their tour guide was on vacation, so we coasted to Hermanos Domingo, which we definitely expected to be a low-quality, high-volume production. It was. But it was more. Their reserve line was actually really good, and we picked up a couple bottles of the Tannat to drink later. You know, because the first thing you want to do after a day of wine tasting is crack another bottle of wine.

We left the winery in plenty of time to make it up to Finca los Nubes, which is owned by Jose Mournier,Cafayate another well-known Argentine winemaker. This is where we were to have lunch. I had some technical difficulties with my bike, which left me cursing and wondering how a one-speed bike could have issues with a chain. So… I had the wonderful opportunity to push it up the hill, all the way into the clouds. But… after rinsing my hands and taking a quick breather, I was ready for a tour and lunch. This was a small winery, which is always a nice change from a big one. Decent wine, and then lunch. What was lunch? Yummy, yummy cheese, candied apples, and a Torrontes was the first course. A perfect parrilla (grill platter) for the second course with the Cabernet-Malbec blend. Finished with coffee and cookies. We talked about how when we lived in France, how we had thought this is what it would be like. We didn’t really find it there, but a simple 20 hour bus ride had gotten us here, so better late than never. The afternoon was classic Argentine: siesta. We slept through the afternoon, woke up for dinner of sausage and cheese, cracked a bottle of the Tannat we had purchased, then went right back to bed for the next day.

Friday was our second day of touring wines, and the last scheduled one. Cafayate We were a little worn out on wine, as you might imagine, but we decided to keep the dubious reservation at Yacachuya, owned by the Etchart family. Rented a couple of bikes, started up the 7km hill to the winery, then POOOFFF!!! My tire was not just flat, it was totally worthless. The bike rental guy had warned us about the spines in the road, and I apparently was destined to find one of them. (Note: if you’re counting, I have had some issue with 4 of the last 4 bikes rented. Luckily, I’m not counting.) So… we get to walk up another hill, this one longer and steeper. Oh, joy. But, it was worth it.

We arrived, both without shirts on, sweating, panting, dirt on our hands and dust in our hair. Cafayate We quickly headed to the bathrooms to make ourselves more presentable, or at least as much as possible. We exit to bathrooms, still shaking water off our hands, to meet Cecilia, the daughter in law of Arnauldo Etchart, founder of Etchart winery which we visited the day before. She was quite nice and a definite talker, so we did a quick tour of the small-production vineyard and bodega before heading past the “No Admittance” sign, going towards their house. She’s talking about her kids, the difficulty of the reservation, the fact that her english is terrible, everything. Erin and I are looking at each other with disbelieving eyes that say, “We’re going in there?”

We walk into Cafayate a small, but nice room with a plate of cheese and crackers setup. Cecilia talks for awhile about the essence of wine, how it’s about the moment, and I’m sitting there wondering about etiquette. Okay, so there’s a delectable cheese plate in front of starving me, a glass of torrontes wine I want to chug like Franzia, but I’m in an old hunting lodge-esque room, there’s a lady in huge chunky jewelery who hasn’t touched the food yet. What do you do? I went for the cheese as delicately as possible and sipped the wine as quietly as possible. But as soon as she left, we started taking dorky pictures of us pretending to be high class. Of course, we got caught by Mrs. Arnauldo Etchart, wife of the founder. What bad luck! Oh well. I don’t think we were fooling anyone.

The owner’s wife sat down and talked to us for awhile about Cafayate and the Torrontes grape, why they did the winery, etc. It was all pretty interesting and in the middle of it, she would quickly scold us for not eating more cheese. I thought I was being dainty, but honestly, how can you eat a lot of cheese daintily? So I abandoned the cotillion-style and went for the (still dainty) shovel-method, which, I think, the grandma really appreciated. Then, the man himself shuffled in. He was doing normal things, like bringing in the paper and mail, talking to his wife about something or another, just generally being a bit crotchedy. We shook his hand, sat down to eat some more cheese, and just listened.

Don Arnauldo Etchart was (and is) a dominant figure in Argentine wine, primarily because he was one of the main reasons the french winemakers came to Argentina, starting with Michel Rolland. Arnauldo Etchart called Michel Rolland down to Cafayate in 1985 or so, which is really early in the fine-wine world of Argentina. So… we were definitely a little star-struck.

After the cheese plate scene, we moved into Cafayatethe formal dining room, complete with a glass hunting case of stuffed poultry to look over the proceedings. We definitely felt awkward, but I’m pretty sure this just added to excitement. We had an incredible lunch, in a beautiful setting with great wine. And afterward, Cecilia even put our bikes in the back of the truck and took us back to town. It was way beyond anything we could have expected.

Once back in town, we settled down for a bit,Cafayate then headed back out to visit a couple more wineries, namely Nanni. We were expecting to go in for a tasting, so when someone handed us a glass, we thanked them and drank it. But, crazy this, they were all french and quebecqois. So, we popped back into our French mode. But, kind of like forgetting to clutch when you shift, it didn’t work so well. French/Spanish/English words came out in orders that made no sense. Thankfully, they spoke english and we embarassingly reverted to our tongue.

The two quebecqois were about our age and quickly invited us to an asado they were making back at their campsite. We said absolutely, let’s meet in the square. Erin and I were wined out by this time, but it wasn’t long until we bumped into them again. Cafayate We changed plans to go out for pizza. After all, it’s so much more simple to order a pizza than to go to the campsite, carry wood, make a fire, grill the meat, and all the other things that go into it. A long night at the pizza place left us with a wine-barrel mouth the next morning.

BUT… it was our last day on our last trip in our last month and we were troopers. Cafayate So we bought a big bag of Lays potato chips and headed out after a huge pot of coffee. Nothing too notable with the exception of the tiny Bodega Salvador Figueroa. Nothing to bring it back to the essentials. It was a warehouse with a bunch of plastic tanks. Stainless steel? Nope. Mechanical presses? Nope. They even bottled by hand, which is just crazy. 6,000 bottles total production means it’s a small family production. Fun stuff.

After that it was quiet time. We had some lunch, watched an old car rally take over the town square, and waited for the bus to leave. We left at 6pm, and arrived at 4:30pm the next day. 22 hours goes by incredibly slow when there’s nothing to do. It was broken up by a drug raid where they found quite a bit of coca leaves, which really is pretty harmless stuff since they just make mate out of it. But, it did provide an half hour of entertainment in the middle of the Argentine desert on our last bus ride. Oh, nostalgia.

A little more detail…

Todd covered the basics and a tad beyond, but last trip means last comments and as usual I am not at a loss for words.  Wine, isn’t that one of the major reasons we decided Mendoza should be home base.  So a trip to the second largest wine region in the country seemed appropriate.  I am glad we both failed to remember exactly how far north Cafayate really is because I am not sure we would have maintained proper motivation for that type of journey.  Luckily, ignorance is bliss.

The fancy bus was awesome.  After a year and a half on all ranges of buses we splurged for the fancy premium bus we had only heard rumors of. Cafayate It was awesome!  Full  on with a steward who kindly kept my plastic glass of wine filled and delivered warm food for my belly. 180 degree fold down chairs are amazing.  I actually slept well.  The same cannot be said for the 180 difference in the bus we took on the return trip and my sleep quality, but that trip just brought us back to reality.

To Cafayate.  I was in charge of planning the trip and I had some focus issues.  Mainly, I didn’t want to plan the trip or use my power of concentration to navigate spanish websites or make phone calls in a foreign tongue.  I am apparently suffering from language laziness in these last few weeks.  But I did manage to make two lunch reservations that both turned out to be highlights of the trip.  So, two thumbs up for the little planning I eeked out.

First off, Todd and biking don’t mix.  He eluded to this but really, it is hysterical.  I love tootling around on bikes especially if the promise of wine lays at the end of the road.  My bikes make it up the road and back down but Todd’s get flat tires, busted chains, sad, sore thighs because Cafayatehe is too tall and everyone here is not, meaning short bikes, and on and on.  But four out of four bikes busted, that is just comical.  As Todd pouted up the hills to the vineyards I believe the phrase, “biking is my kryptonite!” vehemiently left his lips.  Need I say more?

Lunch at Finca Las Nubes was wonderful.  Sitting on the terrace looking out over the vineyards as the cactus laced hills created the perfect shade from the hot sun we enjoyed some wining and dining. Cafayate The wine wasn’t that great, but the food was.  Different types of cow cheese, goat cheese, homemade bread followed by grilled veggies and beautiful meat.  Finished with a grape tort (somethings aren’t meant to include grapes) and espresso.  You really can feel like royalty in this country.  Always nice to be in a place where the dollar stretches, if even just a little.  After lunch we played in the vineyard.  It was spectacular!

Day two, already a bit wined out, but we decided to keep our reservation at San Pedro de Yacochuya.  I had no idea what to expect. My conversation with Cecilia over the phone was rough; kids in the background, broken spanish, but we managed the reservation.  It reminded me of calling the old lady in Pauillac for a place to stay.  A total accomplishment but I needed a glass of wine after both conversations.  Anyway, so glad we didn’t cancel. As we walked our bikes up the road it was beautiful.  The left side of the vines were wonderful shades of fall, the right hadn’t decided to change yet, and the contrast was striking.

Cecilia greeted us with open arms.  Actually, she made me feel fantastic.  Compliments for everything.  It was great!  We walked into the house and it was incredible. Cafayate The walls covered in old paintings, a huge fireplace staked to the brim with logs, and smoke stains eeking up chimney, rustic furniture, and big windows with barn doors.  It was a combination of Argentine decorating and a warm country cabin exuding wealth.

Señora Etchart was excellent.  She sat down very matter of factly and said she was going to tell us about Torrontes. Cafayate And that is what she did.  Her nature was warm yet you could tell she was in charge.  Meeting Sr. Etchart, even if it was a brief Argentine greeting, was fantastic. He is Argentine wine that we know now as a legend.  Not the world of bulk wine that they produced pre-90’s.  Yacuchuya is not at all like Bodega Etchart.  It is small and very well produced from 97 year old vines.  The man knows what he is doing and I saw him deliver the mail. So glad we didn’t cancel this reservation.

The rest of the lunch was wonderful.  Todd and I, one 12 person table, and a lot more paintings, oh, don’t forget all the taxidermy.  We obviously weren’t their normal clientel, but we played the roles well.  Kind of like a certain lunch at Moet & Chandon in Napoleon’s dining room.  Surroundings can just make you feel special.  And Yacochuya nailed everything.

Our last trip left me nostalgic.  But then I remember this is just one adventure, there will be so many more down the road.  That’s a good thought.

Vallecitos is a Pretty Place.

VallecitosSo… this weekend was my “surprise weekend” for Erin.  It’s not really a surprise when you have to say, “Plan on being gone for these next couple days, but I’m not saying where.”  So, there were bits of it that were a surprise, but she pretty much guessed it all.  The surprise was renting a car and going to a mountain refuge for a couple days.

It was wonderful.  I picked up the car around noon and headed back to the apartment to pick up all the stuff that we had ready.  Then, it was off.  IVallecitos picked an alternate route from the standard one towards Chile.  This was a famous backcountry road with a gorgeous view of the Mountain Aconcagua (22, 841ft).  Now, some people seem to think that little 1.2 liter engines, 2 door and low clearance cars aren’t meant for poorly graded gravel roads.  However, we’re in Argentina where anything goes, so off we went.  There were a few moments where large rocks blocked our way, but we managed to drive around them, up the 365 switchbacks to see some incredible views.  Along the way, we passed Villavicencio, an old hotel with gorgeous gardens among the fall leaves.

After we left the gravel road and came out at Uspallata, we headed back along the highway to Jerome Brewery.  When Erin’s dad came in town, he noticed Vallecitosthe label of the microbrewery was a German Shepard, which is the animal that would be on their family shield if they had one.  So, we were on our way to taste the beer and try to pick up some t-shirts or sweaters, or something for the dog lover in us all.  The beer was there, and it was delicious.  They had a beer that was aged 12months in french oak and it was fantastic.  Mmmm.  We had lunch, a couple of vicuna burgers.  Also, yummy.  They had shirts, wait, actually, no they didn’t, they didn’t have anything.  No sweaters, no shirts, nothing.  That was a bit disappointing, to be honest, but it was a fun trip anyway.

From the brewery, the final surprise was still to be revealed to Erin: the San Bernardo Refugio.  This is a small log cabin just outside of the ski village Vallecitos. Vallecitos Hikers use it in the summer for acclimatization, skiers use it in the winter to go skiing, but in the fall, it’s not really used at all.  There were 3 other people at the lodge, that’s it.  So we pretty much had the run of the place.  We were dead tired from the drive in, so we went to bed around 10pm, which earned us ridicule from our new friends.  But, it was good to rest.

The next morning we woke up, had a leisurely breakfast and went out for a hike.  We weren’t planning on anything too strenuous.  For example, one of the other hikers got up at 5am to summit a 5,500m peak. Vallecitos Nope, we passed on that opportunity.  Instead, we walked up the catwalk.  A nicely graded trail with two tracks where we could walk side by side and amicably chat about nothing.  Which we did, stopping to play in the decrepit  and unsafe chairlifts.  When we got to the top of the mountain, we broke for lunch of delicious sausage and cheese.  Then we headed back down to the refugio to relax from the exhausting hike.

Then, theVallecitos last part of the day, was about to start.  I had planned an asado of our very own.  We put on some firewood, got it going, built up the coals, then put on the side of veal, some chorizo and blood sausage.  We spent the night playing guitar with some Canadiens, talking politics and drinking wine out of a damajuana. (A damajuana is a classic argentina 5 liter bottle of wine, of generally low quality.)

This morning, we got up for some breakfast and gave the canadiens a ride to town.  Back in Mendoza, we returned the car, bought some bus tickets to Cafayate, where we’re off to next.  Today, we’re going out with an old friend, Dustin, who we met all the way back in Guatemala.  There aren’t too many of our friends still traveling around the Americas, so it’ll be nice to catch up to see where he’s been.