San Martin de los Andes

I was on my way to San Martin de los Andes.  It´s a beautiful trip from Villa Angostura to San Martin, along the route of Siete Lagos (7 Lakes), the same road that Ernesto (the Che) Guevarra took with his friend on the 2nd motorcycle journey across Argentina.  They crossed the Andes near Junin de los Andes and then continued north to Santiago de Chile and on to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and finally Guatemala, where Che participated in a populist uprising against their dictatorship.  From there he fled to Mexico where he met Fidel Castro´s brother Raul.  I learned a great deal more about Che´s role in Cuba, his dedication to the ideals of communism, and his affection and love for his children in a little museum in San Martin called La Pasteria, the barn where he stayed during his motorcycle trip through South America.

Unbeknownst to me, the route involved 40 km of very rough dirt road.  The governnment of Argentina has been threatening to pave it for the last 10 years or more according to two Canadians who drove this way 10 years ago.  According to the bus driver, they pave 2 km every summer, and will be finished by 2032, when  they will have to start over.  Welcome to Argentina!   I elected to take the 7pm bus, which was supposed to arrive at 9:15pm in San Martin, because I wanted more time in Villa Angostura.  We encountered a woman in a minivan stuck in the ice on the side of the road, and the driver stopped to help.  He closed the bus door, and we were prisoners for over an hour while he and a few men shoveled the snow and ice out from behind her tires.   I almost broke the window so I could pee as there were no bathrooms on the bus.  I have become proficient at holding it on this trip.  We finally arrived at the terminal at 10:45pm.  I inquired about the location of the Puma Hostel from a man at the station, who proceeded to denounce it and describe the virtues of his domicile.  Out of fatigue I acquiesced.  The room was 6 feet wide, the bed 3 feet wide, next to the kitchen, with a door that didn´t close.  He ended up smoking most of the night and clanking around the kitchen, waking up at 5am to prepare something which took hours.  When I asked if he could be quieter he yelled at me and said that everything bothered me (that was the first request I had made).  I got up, paid him, and decided to go to Puma hostel.  He wouldn´t give me change and claimed he´d already done so.  Very rude.  I found the Puma hostel, enlisted the help of two kind travelers to help me get my things, and we proceeded to have a nice walk to a mirador and delicious vegetable quiche.   The next day I spied a Polish chocolateria named Mamuszia, the facade of which was covered with designs from the Polish Tatry Mts.  I had the good fortune to meet the founder, Tatusz, who proceeded to tell me the story of his life, how he met his wife in Poland during the war, and how they came to Argentina and started the chocolateria  in San Martin.  What a life he has had, and at 95 years old, though he can´t hear well and only sees out of one eye, his mind is remarkably sharp.  We did our best in Spanish, since I don´t speak Polish nor he English.  He showed me a book containing his photo and the nickname given him when he was part of the  Polish underground.  Apparently his wife was also part of the underground and had been part of the Warsaw uprising.  She was from Lodz, and I wondered whether my father´s cousin Alynka or Danuta knew Mamuszia, as they lived in Lodz after the war.  I spent 3 hours enraptured in his story.  He displayed characteristic Polish sensibility, pressing me with homemade chocolates and quiche during the visit.  I felt like I had stepped into a house in Zakopane.  The exterior of the house was remarkably similar to those I had seen in the Carpathy mountains, and the interior was filled with Polish crafts, including an axe from Malapolska, dolls and figurines, furniture, and wonderful books about nature, Polish mythology, and Polish history.  Floor to ceiling bookshelves stacked high with titles in Polish, Spanish, and English lined the walls of his bedroom, den, and living room.  He wished he were 70 instead of 95 and could show me the wonders of his country, let me stay in his house and lend me his car.  He was dismayed that I needed to leave Argentina and travel north through Chile due to the greater expense of transport. Besides, the exchange rate is horrible at present for the US dollar, there is a black market for dollars, as the government has put a moritorium on the withdrawl of US  dollars within the country. If I wanted to make my dollars last I would head back to Chile, withdraw US dollars in Santiago, and use the dollars on the black market in Argentina. You have to be crafty when traveling on a shoestring.  I was reluctant to leave Tatusz, and promised I would come back.  As I closed the gate, I reflected on the people I had met in Poland, and the kindness that many of them showed me.  There is something in the Polish character that shines through the dour countenance resulting in part from the suffering and horrors they have born.

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