Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Rafting in Mendoza

I woke up at 10 am and didn't feel bad about sleeping in. I'm still a little dehydrated, so we walked out of our hotel around noon to get some food before going rafting. We finally got our voucher. We also checked out some of the available wine tours before leaving the hotel and reserved one with the same company that booked us our rafting trip. Even at noon, there is no one eating. I don't have any idea when they would either, as siesta is promptly at 2pm.

So, we found a nice outdoor cafe and had some cappelleti (Italian for "little hat") pasta, which was like ravioli in a hat shape. Our empanadas weren't available--maybe the fryer wasn't hot enough yet--so I ordered what I thought was steak tips. It turned out to be tuna and avocado, but as odd as that sounds, it didn't taste too bad. It is on the menu, after all. We each drank two liters of water and our bill again came to $42. Since I've been paying cash because few places here seem to like credit cards, our reserves are dwindling.

We headed back to the hotel just before 2pm, when the flurry of activity related to people getting ready for siesta began. We were ready to go on our trip a little after 2pm, but it wasn't until 2:15 that a guy with bikes on the roof of his car pulled up and apologized for being late and we were on our way. He was a very relaxed guy who was also friendly and practicing his English with us. We got outside the city and were talking about mountain biking and stuff like that. It wasn't until I reached down and adjusted my sandal strap that he asked if I had shoes to wear. I said "Why do I need shoes if we're rafting?" He had a puzzled look on his face: "The tour is for biking." We pulled over and checked my voucher, which said "Rafting". Actually, it said "RAFING".

Apparently, there was another group that had hired him to bike, but they weren't out there when he arrived and our tour bus was late. He made some calls and confirmed this. We were only about an hour late when we got back to the hotel where the van with a raft on top was waiting for us. Oops. The raft driver looked like your standard action movie-casted "dude with short hair": A red bandanna, Oakley sunglasses and a sleeveless T-shirt. We hopped in the bus/van after he checked the voucher and we were on our way (again).

We took almost the same route out of the city to the outfitter's place. They gave us water-repellent tops and pants to go over our other clothes. We hopped into a more jeep-like vehicle and drove a few minutes with the raft in tow. Kacey and I were in the middle of the boat, so we wouldn't have as hard a time with our commands...which were in Spanish. Forward was "adelante!" Back was "atras!" and left ad right were the expected Spanish commands. When our guide wanted us to paddle forward, he said it in a rolling "Adelan-Adelan-Adelante!"  By the way, "atras" and "adelante" are the "back" and "next" buttons on Windows Explorer.
Putting the raft in
Let's do this!
The rapids were pretty small, but the other three folks in the raft were inexperienced, so it was okay. We shoved off into the river, not as cold as you would expect for water coming from the Andes. There was even loose algae, which probably grew in the reservoir upstream and got sucked out when the dam opened. The river has carved out a canyon about 30 feet deep and maybe 60 feet wide, but the low water level kept the river to about 30 feet wide.

The most excitement came at a large rock by the canyon walls. Our guide was trying to surf the rapid. We missed, but pulled the raft out and portaged upstream to try again. We failed again. Then we went a little farther downstream and pulled over. Our guide indicated that we should follow him, so we did. Through a waist-deep tributary. Then we stood next to that same rapid while he said some stuff in Spanish and hopped into the river and floated down to the raft. Not surprising since he also had all six of us stand up together in/on the raft while it was in motion. We both hopped in with only the life preservers keeping us up.
It was quite refreshing to float in the river, but only lasted about a minute. So when he asked if anyone wanted to wanted to go again, we did. All around, you could see the Andes towering over us, rising so much higher than the horizon. We got back to base camp and changed clothes. The rafting dude drove the van home, with Latin alternative rock music blasting out of the speakers.
 
How'd you fall out?                 I didn't fall out, I jumped in!
The view from in the river
Greg relaxing before the ride home
We were back at our hotel around 6 pm and sorted all of our wet and dirty stuff to take to the laundromat two blocks away. We'd purchased the detergent earlier and the place stays open until 8pm. They use laundry tokens, but it only cost a couple of pesos for the washing machine. We threw all of our stuff into one machine to wash, then two dryers. We sat there writing in our journals...as good of a time as any, right? I worked pretty much uninterrupted as there were only a few people who came in. As we were pulling out our dry and mostly dry clothes, Kacey noticed that her camera bag was missing. We looked around briefly before realizing that a guy had come in and asked us a question in Spanish and then walked out. The classic distraction.

That was 20 minutes ago. We talked to the shop owner and they were shocked that that had happened. We asked them to call the police and after the third pass-by the patrol car found the place. Ahem. Let's just say that something like a laundromat is hard to miss even the first time, and cops don't need to look for parking. The officer took our statement, with the help of the shopkeeper. The officer then asked us to come down to the station to file a claim.

The back of an Argentine police car isn't designed with comfort in mind. Even though it was a VW Jetta, the seats had been replaced with a hard plastic and I could barely fit my feet on the floorboard under the driver's seat. The whole rear passenger section is encased in a wire mesh intended to keep someone from breaking out the back window to escape or into the front to change the radio station. We arrived at the station amid flashing lights that lent to the atmosphere of a high energy dance party. We even had a nicely dressed officer open our doors for us like we were celebrities in Hollywood. This was probably due to the fact that the doors don't open from the inside.

We were led to a bench and told to wait for someone to take our story down. We learned this from a guy standing by us who was nice enough to translate the process. He also informed us that in the entire city's police force, only 3 officers spoke English. Which is always something that sounds, um, inspiring? We wouldn't expect all the officers to also speak English, but 3 seems kinda low. Kacey's holding together quite well considering that this is the second time this week she's been a victim of theft. The first we now believe to have occurred in Punta Arenas, because the maids opened all of the doors in the place to air it out...including the one into the street. Her stuff was closest to the door.

Our "English-speaking" officer's English was as good as my Spanish, which is to say, elementary at best. I literally had to draw him a picture of what was stolen, how the scene was set up, how it played out, and details of the culprit, etc. I felt like this was the culmination of all my project design drawing classes and Spanish lessons. About two hours later, we finally finished up and were told to wait just a little longer for our copy of the report to print out of the dot-matrix relic they tried to use as a printer. I don't mean to imply that they don't seem to have their act together, rather my intent is to give you examples of how they don't.
Perhaps it's the fact that they didn't take down any contact information for us, if they did stumble across the camera whose detailed model number description I gave them was reduced to "Canon camera". Or how the interviewer walked by a half-dozen times before he said we could go, but instead of calling us a cab, had a police car take us back. He led us to the car, we got in, he closed the doors and walked away. So our second ride in an Argentine police car began by waiting for what seemed like 15 minutes in the back of the only patrol car double parked in the street outside the station. People passing by must have wondered what we'd done.

After a while, our first officer on the scene (who hadn't gotten the story to our interviewer, see "have their act together", above) rode shotgun while the driver took us back to our hotel. We were helped out of the back of the patrol car while the classily dressed hotel staff looked on in what felt like haughty supremacy. But wait, don't they work at a hotel?

Back in our room, we now addressed the sinking void that had developed moments after the realization that the camera and all the photos of our trip to date were now in the unappreciative sticky fingers of some petty criminal, save the ones we took while rafting with a disposable waterproof camera. All of the beautiful photos and chance sighting are now nothing more than memories we can only share through words not designed to express such awe and beauty. Fortunately, Kacey's journal was in-hand (not in the camera bag) so she still has her thoughts on the trip, even if they are now tainted with the unfulfilling acceptance that there is more chance of finding our cameras (mine was stolen in Santiago) on a street corner at home than having them returned to us. Imagine the lack of trust I now feel towards everyone whose eyes cross over me, potentially appraising the quality of prizes I might offer, should they decide to take away something from me that I care about but means absolutely nothing to them except another quick score.

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