The friend of a friend–an American expat living in northwest Argentina–invited us out to her estancia one recent afternoon for a swim. We accepted.
It was quite a spread–some 3,000+ hectares of rolling hills outside the city with a view that overlooked much of a valley and was halted only by the Andes Mountains in the distance. Years before, she had married a very wealthy Argentine and raised her family on his family’s estate, alongside any number of brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins. Its hacienda style homes were built close enough to form a little village compound of houses that, by now, were sometimes lived in year-round or sometimes hardly at all.
Some years ago, our host’s husband had died, but she’d stayed on with her growing children, no doubt enjoying all that the remove offered, including the many horses for not one, but two polo fields.
The family, it seems, had permanently relocated to the countryside after the local government seized their “big house,” a massive and beautiful palace in the city center that was subsequently converted into one of the city’s fine arts museums, which we had experienced first hand the prior day. The family and city government remain locked in a legal battle over the taking of the property and compensation.
I am inching closer to the title of this post. On the afternoon of our excursion, we visited and paid our respects to some of the relatives, including a now elderly woman who was born in the palace and was forced out when the city seized it. She has spent most of her years since then living on the country estate.
Including her 16th year, when she became the girlfriend of a young medical student named Che Guevara. Yes, that same one. But not the iconic Che of the beard and motorcycle, or the revolutionary Che that has spawned untold millions of teeshirts.
Rather, this was the clean shaven Che in a cleanly laundered white shirt and dress slacks whose pictures we were shown with his then girlfriend on one of the estate’s lawns. It was Che not on a motorcycle, but rather perched on a basic pedal bicycle, with the same polo fields and Andes Mountains in the distance.
The family, apparently with some foresight about where the young medical student was headed ideologically, and being from what I gather to be a rather conservative bunch (one uncle we met is a published climate change denier), soon told young Che to get lost, which he promptly did. On his motorcycle and not a bike, we now know.
Which does get me closer to my point: I can fully sympathize with Che in exchanging one set of two wheels for the other, motorized ones, in this country.
You see, just a few days prior to our visit, my wife and I were on rented bikes headed for the vineyards and olive farms that dot the outskirts of the town of Maipu. (Yes, that name has already entered our lexicon.) As we headed uphill out of town, as the bicycle path disappeared, as the road narrowed, and as the wave of speeding and massive trucks, buses and cars continued to buzz us as they darted past and tried to avoid the oncoming traffic, our leisurely country gambol became a hair-raising attempt to stay alive.
At one point, my wife declared nada mas of this, and we dismounted the bikes and walked a good bit of the way to our first destination, an olive farm some 12 kilometers from our starting point.
We did arrive at the farm in one piece, if a bit exhausted. Luckily, we learned that the next tour and tasting was not scheduled for another hour, which would give us the chance to rest. And we did, blithely unaware of the passing of time. Which did pass, well beyond the promised time for the tour. So we asked, what’s up? And were told, Oh, sorry, but the man who was supposed to give the tour left, and you’ll now have to wait nearly another hour for the next tour.
It wasn’t getting any earlier, and since we didn’t want to have to navigate the road back in the twilight, we had no choice but to skip the promised next tour and head toward our second destination, a noted vineyard and bodega.
Back on our bikes, we found the road a bit easier to navigate, but we were flagging from the lack of food. Arriving at our next destination, we found the tour had just left, but were told that someone would be coming pronto to get us. That person never came. It was now getting even later, and we were growing more hungry and tired by the minute.
So, it was back on the bikes, and headed to destination three. This one turned out much better, as it included a “self tour” of the vineyard. But hunger overcame curiosity, so we skipped the tour and headed straight for the restaurant. (Besides, we’d already toured a wonderful bodega in Mendoza and tasted its world-class reds, whites and sparklings.)
The kitchen was to close in 10 minutes, we were told. We dashed up the stairs to the dining room, where the hostess told us, so sorry, the kitchen has closed. But, we said, the boss-man downstairs said it was still open. A look of surprise later, and following a brief chat with her fellow workers, we were ushered to a table. We ordered our food and drink quickly (a marvelous rose from the estate), and had a friendly chat with a group of Brits/Canadians/Israelis who were finishing up.
Sadly, the gentle looking American couple who were just a couple of minutes behind us, were turned away from the kitchen. But they, like us, sat on the expansive patio overlooking the hectares of vines, sipping their wine.
That evening, we did make it back to the bike shop in Maipu, and then by bus back to Mendoza.
But the experience that day reflected something we’ve encountered at nearly every stop: something you need or want to do is about to be fulfilled, in just a minute, please wait. But that minute doesn’t often arise. Instead, under the intense sun of the Argentine summer, things seem to simply slide by to be completed who knows when.
Just maybe, I now wonder, was it this lassitude that got Che off his pedal bike and onto a chopper?