This is an excerpt from my book Coming of Age in the Andes: An Adventure into the Mountains of South America. See the Amazon link at the end of the post.
Over 2000 kilometers southwest from Buenos Aires I met up with my stepmother’s crazy, ‘couldn’t give a fuck’, Scottish brother James. He could put the greatest Berlin Octoberfest drinker to shame and talk more shit than a divorce lawyer on speed. He decided years ago to escape city life in Europe and retreat to the crisp quiet of Patagonia. He used to make frequent runs to Amsterdam for business, the nature of which I’ll leave up to your imagination. And to renew his visa, he simply hops across the border to Chile every few months and sometimes throws in a few days skiing in the picturesque town of Esquel.
His hacienda on the outskirts of El Bolson was an idyllic base for the first few weeks.. Lined with cherry trees, old oaks, rolling wheat fields and sheltered by jagged peaks in all directions, I wondered how one could ever leave this alpine paradise. Free-flowing whiskey, beer and wine were aptly matched with fall-off-the-bone steak and chimichurri, a mouth-watering meat sauce of coriander, olive oil, cumin, garlic and onion. How I managed to climb unaided up the stairs to my room for bed was nothing short of a small miracle.
James also brought over a new squeeze every so often, happy to introduce me to their daughters (that is, unless they were actually the daughters themselves), but made it quite clear that I needed to give him some space for him to work his magic. And there was more than enough of that to go around.
During the day I meditated and read in the auburn groves that flanked the farm, took long walks in the hills, and at night got hopelessly drunk with James over asados (barbeques) grilled under crystal clean constellations as far as the eye could see…well, OK, maybe not our eyes after a few bottles of vino tinto! When you’re not climbing, you gotta indulge, not that you can’t take steaks and wine with you up a mountain. James I’m sure would’ve told me that a trip to the mountains in fact can’t be done without meat and booze….lots of booze!
My stepdad once told me a funny story about just this. On one of his first climbs his experienced partner Robert assumed the responsibility for doing the final sorting of gear just before hitting the trail. During the approach trek Chris just couldn’t figure out why the hell his pack was so damn heavy. It was only a few days trip. ”What on Earth was in there? Steaks and wine?” He thought to himself in exasperation.
When they finally got to the base camp, Rob instructed Chris to pitch the tent, the temperature quickly plummeting below zero, while he casually went about making a fire. Once the coals were close to perfect – my stepdad still wondering what was for dinner and why so much attention was being placed on readying the fire – Rob cracked his knuckles, leaned back and made the announcement of the day, ”So, why don’t you pull out those rumps and that bottle of cab man?”
The women were busy it seemed, so James and I headed out for a few days on horseback into the mountains. We did the shopping together, so there were no surprises about the fare for the evening festivities and plus we had horses to lug everything up anyway. After a long, but relaxing day of riding we set up camp at the banks of an emerald green lake, hitched the horses to some trees and rustled up a fire. James forgot a grid for the steaks, but a few big flat stones did just as well. A bottle of White Horse whiskey (his favorite brand, the irony of which will soon become clear) down the hatch, James passed out in a stupor just before I did.
The next morning I awoke to strange groaning sounds and saw James rolling around in his sleeping bag about 30 meters downhill from where he’d set it.! Groans turned into top-drawer Scottish cursing as he realized the horses had tugged pulled loose from what were obviously poorly tied knots.
I was having so much fun out on the farm with James and hanging out in El Bolson. I didn’t want to leave. But That the eventual prospect of venturing out on my own, without any guaranteed hitching posts or contacts was looming and it scared me shitless. There were the added challenges of picking up a foreign language and garnering courage to climb in the Andes without a stitch of high alpine mountaineering experience, which I would have to face head on.
I devoured Spanish grammar books, spoke with locals in bars and parks down in El Bolson and did a 2-3 day trek every week in the extremely accessible trails that snaked through the nearby mountains. Finding trip partners was easy,easy; almost anyone was keen to go. A coincidental hike with Jorge, a solitary Argentinian living a few miles outside of town was especially memorable.
I’d joined a trail leading east along the arroyo Azul (Blue River) one morning and noticed a tall man in a straw hat slowly pacing behind me, whistling and chewing grass. I broke for some water, waiting for him to catch up. I asked about the route, slightly unsure where it led because thick brush choked the maze-like path. Instead of offering information he simply gestured for me to follow him, continuing his not-a-care-in-the-world cheeping. I remember him commenting on my walking technique, as I carved along the steep track with my 15kg pack. No steaks and wine this time though.
A break was soon declared. Like a drunk bear, Jorge leaned against a broad-based tree, promptly falling asleep. ”Nice dude, hope you’re having a good nap but I haven’t got all day here!” In half an hour he propped up, smiled and began making a little fire alongside a gently trickling stream. ”Oh for shit’s sake, what now, a goddamn tea party!?” A rusted pot was proudly revealed and after boiling some water, he prepared mate, that beloved Argentinian beverage that I soon came to love really enjoy. Some chewy sourdough bread complimented the bitter herb drink, sipped out of a thermos through a metal straw, traditionally passed between friends and replenished with hot water every so often.
Jorge taught me a valuable lesson that afternoon. Grinning serenely in a semi-reclined position he began talking like a sage. ”What’s the rush? You will get to the campsite before dark. Enjoy the mountain. Listen to the birds. Do you hear them? What sounds are they making? Look at the flowers. What colors and shapes are they? Do you see them? Breathe the fresh air. What does it smell like? Isn’t it just amazing? Take your socks off and put your feet in the cool water here. It will relax you…I promise.”
Take a page from Lao Tzu brother man. Spot on. He was essentially hinting at the central Taoist concept of wu wei, meaning ‘non-action’, but also ‘acting spontaneously, ‘not forcing’ and ‘flowing with the moment’. The old master said that ‘a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving’.
His words were like gold. There is no rush. Take it easy. Don’t try to control things too much. Because as soon as you do this, you lose power over what it is you want. Rather, by giving up control, by letting go, you realize that you already have it. It’s there. And it always was and will be there. Allow the universe to unfold and while you watch it – and yourself – happening, enjoy the ride. Jorge inspired me that afternoon to not put too much attention on concerns about future. Let the river flow, it’s going there anyway.
The moon hung fat and orange from a navy blue sky late one evening as I walked back from El Bolson up the winding dirt road leading to the farm. In Argentina – as in Spain – nightlife only really gets kicking around midnight. And even that’s too early for some. In El Bolson grandparents and children joined couples on long strolls downtown on the way to dinner, stopping to buy ice cream and candy floss, and talk with friends and family. Teenagers gathered in parks to swing back a few bottles of cheap liquor before cramming the bars and clubs until sunrise. And this pretty much every day of the week. The seeming depravity of sleep is made up for by a late start to work as well as an afternoon siesta.
For nights out, I would usually walk the few kilometers along the unpaved track down the hill and then hitch into town, repeating the process when people have breakfast in most parts of the world. I had time to dream during those illuminated, non-rushed night walks, drifting off to the mountains around me, planning my next move. Due south. The big peaks of Patagonia. It was time to jump into the river and let it take me away downstream.