I had been living in Mendoza in the east of Argentina for a year, working as a wine tour guide as well as writing for a local magazine. My friend Fiona and I had just been asked if we would look after a ranch for some friends while they were away for a few months and, ever the adventure seekers, we leapt at the chance.
It was a basic, charming farmhouse set on a couple of acres surrounded by mountains. At night you could see the lights of Mendoza city 60km away. All we had to do for our friends was to feed their dogs and keep up the maintenance of the place. Our friends did also mention something about, with us living there we might deter any potential ranch raiding bandits. Cool!
Water for the house was collected in a rainwater tank, so showers were dribbly and kept to a minimum, but much to our joy and amazement there was a swimming pool that we’d jump in to cool off after finishing our chores. We’d lose power regularly and have to rely on the gas stove and lamps, the bottles for which we would need to frequently get filled. We had a very old, dilapidated and temperamental truck that just about made it down the road to the nearest grocery store 30 minutes away in the township of Barrio La Favorita. I don’t know what La Favorita is like now but when we were there 14 years ago it had a pretty rough reputation. We stood out like sore thumbs: two gringas with funny accents, a beat up truck and empty gas bottles.
We had the ambitious and hair brained idea of starting a hostel at the ranch for backpackers who wanted a rural Argentinian experience. Fiona used her couch surfing Facebook group to advertise it and astonishingly we started to get guests almost immediately. We’d drive the old truck down the mountain and pick the guests up from the bus station, bring them back to the ranch and cook them a big parrilla BBQ of all the local favourites; blood sausage, chorizo, ribs and steaks. We’d pour them lots of cheap red wine and send them off to bed in one of the ramshackle bedrooms. We had a blast. Maybe they would have preferred real Argentinian hosts, I don’t know, but they got fed and watered and met two crazy chicks who probably massively undercharged them.
Life was grand for a while but our savings were running out without me tour guiding and Fiona not rafting, so she took a job as an instructor at a rafting company in a neighbouring canyon and came back to the house on her days off. It was on one of those nights when I was alone at the ranch that I got a call from a friend in the city – there had been an increasing amount of raids on homes and wineries in the area and he felt certain that it was a matter of time before they came to us. Especially as our conspicuous trips to La Favorita would have informed any shady types that there were just two girls at the ranch. And tonight, only one.
I put the phone down and realised what an idiot I was. And to top it off I was an idiot without a car or any means of leaving. I went outside to look for the dogs and saw a huge storm rolling in. The air cracked with thunder, the sky was a menacing grey and soon it would be nightfall. Oh, and the dogs were missing. I started calling their names, searching the property for them as the wind picked up. I don’t know if this was a sane or illogical conclusion to come to but my brain started thinking, right, the bandits are here, they’ve killed the dogs so they can’t raise the alarm and I’m next.
I gave up looking for them and went inside trying to barricade the doors and windows which had no locks as the gale started blowing them open and making everything bang. It was a tense old time. I got a knife from the kitchen and sat on the floor in the corner in the pitch black waiting for them to come through the door. Occasionally lightning would light up the room and I’d get a split second to see that they weren’t there yet. Am I setting the scene? I was a bag of nerves. I stayed in the corner clutching that knife all night as the storm eventually passed and the sun miraculously rose. Then I ran to the nearest horse farm where the neighbours looked after me before suggesting it might be time to leave the ranch. Fiona came back and we packed up our things. The dogs were fine by the way, just frightened by the storm. The neighbours looked after them until our friends returned from overseas to reclaim their beautiful, vulnerable ranch.
What was I to do next? I could go back to the city and resume my tour guiding around bodegas but I’d had enough near misses with bandits and I liked being in the countryside. My boyfriend, Roman, who had been telling me I was hopelessly naïve for months, persuaded me to move in with him in his little mountain shack near the white water rafting base I’d met him at nearly a year prior. It was made out of a few bricks and corrugated iron, a ropey electrical cable provided some light and there was a fire for the freezing nights in winter. It was wonderful. He’d go off to work each day and if I wanted to join any of the rafting, abseiling, or hiking tours his boss offered, I could for free. His family lived in the village and welcomed me with open arms. Nights were spent drinking Quilmes beer around the fire with Roman, his friends and family.
They don’t really have pets in these mountain villages, just stray dogs that roam the streets and that followed me everywhere (because I fed them) much to everyone’s amusement. After a few weeks I wanted to work. I heard about a hostel an hour’s walk from the village so I marched up there one day and asked what I could do. They needed someone to look after the place so I manned the bar, did the laundry, and translated when I could between the boss and the backpackers. On occasion I’d cut people’s hair with often disastrous results. I’d finish for the day and walk the hour back to Roman in Potrerillos playing the only music I had on my iPod which was Queens of the Stone Age. Still now whenever I hear one of their songs I’m instantly transported to the Andes mountains and my life with these lovely Argentinians.
One night I got struck by stomach pains again and my temperature fluctuated dramatically. The nearest doctor was in the city hours away and no buses ran until morning. Roman ran to the neighbours and soon our shack was filled with old women covering me in all their blankets and making me drink yerba mate tea. It was a long night but eventually I stopped having spasms and frightening everyone.
Life went on for the most part peacefully for a while, me traipsing up and down the mountain followed by a line of dogs. I went to the local school and taught English and occasionally took the bus into the city to check my emails (my poor parents!). I met up with my old boss, Alfie, who was eager for me to write about life in the Andes for the magazine so I’d write up my stories in letters and hand them to the bus driver who doubled up as the postman.
Once I interviewed a wonderfully mad Argentinian man who had made a tiny brewery in the mountains. He used an old Dulce de Leche kettle to process the barley and stirred it with a raft’s paddle. We spent hours drinking his ‘diablo’ cerveza and eating cheese fondue as his friends regaled us with funny anecdotes in the dark as another electrical storm took out the electricity. Some weekends we’d visit Fiona at her rafting base and go to crazy raves in canyons, the music echoing off the natural amphitheatre of the mountains.
But there was a problem. Roman wanted babies, mine specifically. I was 30 by then and far too old to be childless by mountain standards, I should have popped loads out by now. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to swim in the Med, backpack around the States, ride a water buffalo in South East Asia, that kind of thing. I wasn’t ready to settle down and I didn’t think I ever would be there. I made the decision to leave and the only way Roman could understand it was by me saying I wanted to see my family.
We said goodbye at the bus station and I stared out of the bus window at the Argentinian countryside for 11 hours questioning what I was doing. But when I arrived in Buenos Aires I boarded the plane to London, all of a sudden just really wanting to see my mum and dad. After a month at home in England I was back on a plane, this time to Mallorca, Spain. I had about two week’s worth of money to find a job and somewhere to live.
To be continued….