January 11, 2009
Argentines tend to forget that another country hovers west beyond the Andes. But some generously recognize Chile as the wavebreaker behind Bariloche, a geographic feature that prevents those whopping Pacific storms from washing out good Argentine cattle country.
So I was pleased to have Graciela finally come see me in Chile. Ten years ago I had gone to Buenos Aires a country mouse. Graciela adopted me without blinking. She taught me to jiggle a skeleton key, buzz in apartment guests and hail the screeching 110 bus without losing any toes.
Over Christmas we went hiking in the ultra-remote Puelo Valley, a place, in her words, “without kioskos” (mini-marts).
Move over, Alice in Wonderland.
It started with a trip to a swishy outdoor store, where for the first time in her life, Graciela bought clothes specifically not made for the indoors. In the dressing room I heard myself say, “I know that’s how you like them but trekking pants shouldn’t be skin tight.”
Could I be making a big mistake?
It was embarrassing when she mistook the bramble-covered sheep for a goat, hilarious when a collared piglet (dressed to keep it out of gardens) was taken for a unicorn. And then there was the time when she fell behind hiking alongside the horse riders. Hearing her shouts for help, I nearly turned my ankle racing back, only to find her calmly poised at a faint trail juncture.
She didn’t know the rules of the countryside. I forgot there were rules (like don’t follow Frost. When in doubt, best take the road more travelled).
Much of the work of travel is to understand the charms and advantages of another world and to reassess our own reality. I had known that Graciela would be impacted by her visit, but I was surprised when I was too. It’s not only travel, but also travelers who teach us all what a piece of heaven looks like. And sometimes it’s our own backyard.
Midway through the arduous hike, Graciela charmed (or conned) an unseasoned rider for her spot in the saddle. I again wondered if it was a good idea. I tried to give some conservative advice. But then I saw her mount her ride swifter than she’d ever hailed the 110. And her wild laughter is still ringing in my head.