Friends of Argentina makes the best trip ever.

Second day back from 5 weeks in Argentina.  My mind can’t resist traveling back to the beautiful country.  At night, I stare at the stars looking for the galaxy lights that lit the sky, and where did all those bright stars go? ; I look at the ocean and imagine it is the lakes of Bariloche?; I grab my cellphone thinking that I can text my friends a quick message and promptly get a joking reply.  The thoughts of my trip are deep and memorable because it turned out to be one of the best trips I have ever had.  

The more I travel, the more I realize that it is not the places or the sites, that makes the experience memorable or enjoyable; it is has to do with the people and friends that you meet and share the experience along the way.  So, I feel very much blessed that I was not only able to travel to see an amazingly beautiful country but more importantly was able to meet up with old friends and also meet new ones. 
On my first day in Bariloche (Western Argentina, Northern Patagonia), I met a girl from Beijing who seems like she is literally hoping around the world.  She told me she just came from Vancouver skiing with friends, and now she is down in Argentina checking out potential ski areas of Patagonia (research for future trips).  We both arrived the same day from Buenos Aires (over 20 hour bus ride).  I was busy making plans to get settled for the next month.  She was running around looking for a bus trip out the next day to catch a tour of Antarctica leaving from a port some 1000 miles south.  I thought this girl is crazy, she spend more time traveling across the world to get to a destination than she does in enjoying the places!   Meanwhile, I was fascinated about my new surrounding, it immediately reminded me of the Swiss Alps, crystal clear lakes surrounded by numerous snow capped mountain peaks and, dark color pine trees covering the slopes down to the town with beautiful homes of log.  She asked what my plans are.  I said that I was going to stay in town for basically one month to flyfish the surrounding rivers.  Her face immediately showed her disbelief.  She quickly asked, “don’t you get bored, standing out there in the river day in and day out?”  I was hit by a small panic attack.  These areas are rural, surrounded by deep mountains and isolated rivers.  Am I so distanced from reality that I do not see the craziness of traveling around the world to go into the mountains and spend the month fishing by myself!  The next day she continued on her mission of going on a tour of Antarctica and I on mine of flyfishing adventure.  For the next two days, I fished the river Limay starting at the end of the Nahuel Haupi Lake 8 miles out of town.  I was excited to be fishing in crystal mountain waters, with views that a only painter can imagine.  But as the moments grew into hours and day, the questions of the girl that I previously met started to repeat in my mind along with my own doubts. The words of “what the heck am I doing here?” kept on ringing in mind as I was not catching anything, nor see any fish in the crystal gin clear waters, and became more tired from standing facing the mountain winds and high altitude summer sun.  I  began to think maybe I should start making alternative plans for my trip in Argentina!

My fortune all changed late in the second day.  I met Alex a multigenerational local Argentinean of Japanese decent on the river just when I was frustrated and did not know what to do, I approached this stranger seeking for some advice.  At first, we could not figure out what language to speak, I thought he was a Japanese tourist, he thought I was a Korean. He spoke to me in English, broken as I would expect of a Japanese.  Only after 5 mins going back and forth did we realize that we can communicate in Spanish!!  And our friendship took off!!  He volunteered to be the host gracious enough to explain a few things to this frustrated fisherman.  I was immediately impressed with his generosity as he made the effort to explain how to fish the river and promised to show me other parts of the area.  Within the next couple days, I was fishing with his buddies Sebatian and Tato and Willy, which they all self-described themselves “ fanatic flyfishermen”.  Immediately, I felt like I was among my best friends from home, calling each other, hanging out, sharing wine, and of course fishing and telling fish stories at the end of the day.  

At the same time I was making new friends, I got in touch with old friends (Bianel, Lorena, Laly, and Maria Martha)  One problem with traveling is that you often develop friendships that cannot advance due to the isolation of distance and language.  These four Argentinean friends I met while traveling in Greece with my classmate friends after graduating from Michigan MBA in 1994.  I did not speak any Spanish then and they most did not speak any English.  Talking we occasionally had to depend on someone to translate.  But somehow despite this barrier, we had a great time in Greece together, they traveled to Chicago to visit me, I to Argentina two previous trips and we always stayed in touch trading emails in broken English but incredibly enough to carry on our friendship for over 13 years.   To this day, I am perplexed as how we are able to become such good friends overcoming distance, time, language, and culture.  I can only explain this with fate of this friendship that we share.

So with a phone call to Bianel in Bahia Blanca (on the eastern shores of the Argentina), we were able to speak Spanish for the first time.  It was strange feeling, like having died and reborned again; as communicating  in different languages, you feel like a different person, or meeting a person all over again.  Bianel, was her typical self as I remember, full of energy and laughs.  She tells me that she is going to come visit for a few days to tour the area with me and she wanted to do everything, hike, camp, bike, and whatever else we can squeeze in.   I got off the phone and checked the map, and it confirmed that she will have to get on a bus for about 14 hours each way to visit me for 4 days.  I thought about when is the last time we traveled such a distance in any form just to see a friend for a few days.  Five days later, I picked up at the bus and we immediately starting joking and laughing like old friend do when we meet.  For the next four days together, we drove a mountain route that circles the most beautiful sceneries of the 7 lakes in the area.  We camped the first night continuing our endless conversation over wine, beer, food, and mate (typical Argentinean tea) with the clear bright stars reflecting off the mirror like lake surface next to our campsite.  Afterall, we had a lot to talk, it was the first time in 13 years we were able to converse!!!  Incredible as it seems but true..!!  As you can imagine, it was a wonderful 4 days, we rented canoed, biked, hiked, drove and talked, and then sat a café nestled in the mountains enjoying the views and talked more.  We were even crazy enough to rent a plane using my “well used (ha!)” pilot license and fly the mountain areas of Bariloche under the supervision of the instructor.  As we taxied out to the runway, the instructor realized that I for whatever reason, language or lack of memory of how to fly, that I did not know what I was doing.  He took over full control, only to realize that the brakes had failed and we could not go up.  Thank God, who knows how an overconfident pilot and an adventurous (crazy) friend would end up.    Being with Bianel, it reminded me how we were in Greece and other visits, we were carefree, adventurous, full of energy, and laughs of silliness.  

During my last week, I made the trip to visit Bianel and the other friend in their home town of Bahia Blanca.  Lorena picked me up at the station!  Hugs, laughs and happiness without care as to who else was in the station.  We went out to the car and Lorena introduced her husband Juan.  They tell me that we are going to workplace of Laly to say hi as it is her birthday.  Arrived in the Bank, we sit down at her office.  We talk - trying not to be too loud as we usually are- to not disturb the people of the bank (why are banks always so quiet?)  We get interrupted as she answer calls and handles matters.  This made me think, wow, how long has our friendship been and how much it has evolved overtime.  Circumstances are so different now.  Laly and Lorena are both married with kids, they all work serious jobs now.  It further impresses me how special our friendship is.  

Knowing that I love fishing, they already have organized a deep sea fishing trip the next day.  We got up the next morning at 4 am and headed out to the port.  The six of us shared the day like old friends, even with their husbands, I felt like I have known them for years.  My first thought is, how is it possible that just a day ago, I was fishing on in the beautiful mountains of Patagonia, with clean waters and surrounded by the sound of birds and deer in heat, now I am surrounded by spewing diesel fumes, noise of the huge engine, and smell of rotting fish guts (fresh trout does not smell).  I wanted to jump overboard then to suffer this disaster.   (I never had the guts to tell my friends that I dislike chartered boat fishing).  Not soon after the captain stop the boat and we dropped our lines, I looked around and people’s lines are all tangled up!  The bow to the stern, and starboard to port side.  Boy this is gonna be a long day, I thought to myself.  But soon, the action started to pick up and people were catching all kinds of fish, from rays, to sea bass, eels, and small sharks!!  Besides Antonio, the others were basically first timers, and the burst of jubilation upon hooking their first fish, made everybody smile.  Interestingly, the girls always baited their own hooks and never whined or squirmed!!  Actually, to the extent, they “manhandled” their catch!  Is this a cultural difference or just these friends that I know? – I ask myself.  Pretty soon, I realized that I am having fun absorbing all this in and sharing my time with good friends, as we shared eachothers bragging of our catches, the laughs as we accidently haul our catch into our neighbor’s face, and taking a break in between to have mate and beer.  Pretty soon, the beer is free flowing along with the stories, laughs and giggles.  I think we became the entertainment for the whole boat as we were definitely the loudest!!  At the end of the day. I estimate that we kept over 100 lbs of fish or 30lbs of fresh fillets.  But the day was not over, we gathered at House of Lorena and Juan (after showering and getting the fish guts of our body) to do a fish Parrilla or an argentinian BBQ.  The fire was carefully prepared and started at 9, but we did not start eating until like close to 1am!! The secret of the Argentinean parrilla is using slow fire for better taste, but my theory is so that there is more time for relaxing with friends over drinks and stories.

The next day Sunday, we all woke up late and lazy-ed around the house…you guessed it, we sat around a table over mate tea!!  This day Laly and Antonio offer to host the dinner party prior to my departure.  Since, my bus leaves at 11:30pm, it did not leave up much time for dinner.  The night reminded me of the movie “My Greek Wedding”.  Everybody was all tense, due to the time—not about enough time to eat, but I think short of time to socialize as they are used to..The dinner table had conversation and going in all direction.  People telling stories across the table, others serving food and passing plates, one filling the wine glasses and the kids all wanting to pitch in on the action.  Even as I write this, I laugh and smile from reflecting on the moment.  At 11:00 the girls being travelers themselves, already loaded my bags in the car, gathered for a group foto and next thing we were off in the car, screaming, yelling, and laughing from hi energy..  We arrive at the station just in time to be the last passenger on.   Again, the bystanders look on as we all rush to say our farewells, hugs, kisses, and promises to seeing each other soon.

Arriving in Buenos Aires, I had to visit one person that has been in my mind for years.  Maria Martha, was the fourth person of the group of 4 whom I met in Greece.  She was like the other girls, funny, full of energy and always smiling, but in many ways, I was closer to Maria Martha because she spoke English and therefore always talked to her more and depended on her for translating to the other girls.  The last time I saw here was in one 8 years ago.  Soon after that visit I got news that she had her baby.  A couple months after that, I got another note that she had an brain aneurysm.   It was a shock as she was so young and she just became a Mom.  I used to write emails to Bianel to read to M. Martha when she was in the hospital just out of her coma.   Previously, I was afraid to ask how she is doing as I did not want to bring on a sad subject when we are always so happy.  The girls finally definitely tell me that Martha is doing well except her speak was affected due to muscular control.  But her memory and comprehension is 100%.  So I had to visit her.  Laly, gave me Matha’s address and I trekked across the city to see my old friend.  Upon seeing her, we hugged as old friends do…  We spent the afternoon, chatting in the home of her mother over lunch and looking over the photos of Greece.  It reminded how carefree we all were, and enjoying life to all that it has to offer to its full extent.  Being with Maria Martha, further impressed me how special our friendship is, despite the distance, time and language barriers, and even after a scary aneurysm attack, we are able to laugh and giggle together as we did when we first met.

Ok, this post turned out way longer than I expected.  Thinking of our friendship and reflecting on the times we shared, my mind wondered endlessly.  Thanks for sharing and making my trip to Argentina one of the best ever..Bianel, Lorena, Laly, Maria Martha, Juan, Antonio, Alex, Tato, Sebatian and Willy.  I hope to see you all soon.