NEAR EL BOLSON, Argentina
Electricity and hot water are the top two amenities at our small wooden cabana inside an organic farm here in Patagonia.
We harvest potatoes and vegetables for our meals. We collect and cut firewood to heat the charming two-story cabin.
These tasks — as volunteers for a self-sustaining Austrian couple — invoke appreciation for what we often take for granted at home in Minnesota.
The heat feels warmer when your arms slam an axe into the lumber. The peas taste better when your fingers crack open the pods.
We live well without TV or many saturated fats, but when our host, Suzie, gave us two pieces of her sugary desert, we savored every bite.
Before dinner, we devoured the two-layer chocolate cake stuffed with an oozing mass of whipped cream and blackberries.
Looking out at the snow-covered Andes from the cabana’s front patio, Pessa summed it up succinctly.
“When you don’t get to have everything you want when you want it, things like this are so wonderful,” she said, stabbing her fork yet again into the clear plastic bowl.
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My mind has struggled to put into words the incredible beauty we witnessed on the two-hour bus ride from Bariloche to El Bolson.
Crisp yellows and reds of turning leaves. … Blue lagoons. … Snow-capped mountain peaks.
Simply, it was the most serene landscape I’ve ever seen.
Words from Barry Lopez’s book “About This Life” helped me. The nature-travel writer was describing Hokkiado, Japan, but the words connect in Patagonia.
“Nowhere here is the scale of human enterprise large,” Lopez wrote. “It meshes easily with the land.”
At this farm in Mallin Ahogado or south into the town of El Bolson, there are few semis moving materials, few manufacturing operations. Granted this is a small, remote town, but there are also few signs of exuberant commercialism.
Also, to put a twist on an old Tank feature, the “Noxious Number,” take a guess at how many billboards along that two-hour commute in southern Argentina?
Now that’s a “Nice (Not Noxious) Number.”
That number isn’t comprehensible on U.S. roadsides.
During a childhood vacation to the Florida Keys, I remember ubiquitous billboards, some with posts submerged into the shallow Gulf of Mexico. It ruined the natural beauty of the isles.
And the commute from the Twin Cities area to Duluth is polluted with billboards about every mile. My goal on that familiar stretch of highway is to be as willfully inattentive to the marketing as possible. I don’t want to ride through a 150-mile commercial.
Thankfully, there are no such intrusive signs of “human enterprises” here.
I kissed my first Argentine man the other day.
(No worries, folks. Sarah and Andy – or “Sandy” as we were previously referred to on this trip – remain a hot item.)
But since I arrived in Argentina, I had wondered what the circumstances would be for my first authentic greeting (or goodbye) using this country’s tradition of kissing each other on the cheek.
A few Sundays ago, Pessa and I went on a few-mile hike to Confluencia, a sun-filled trip into a luscious green valley where the crystal clear waters of Rios Azul and Blanco meet.
After returning to the trailhead, we stopped for a beer at the corner saloon.
A few Argentineans, or Paisanos, stood in a small circle outside the bar.
Their quiet horses stood tied to a nearby fencepost. They casually flapped their tails.
The Paisanos passed the lazy afternoon both laughing and sipping large beers. Some wore leather chaps and most of them had on their distinct black berets.
Once in a while, one of the young Paisanos would crack his whip on the nearby grass. It seemed like an act of boredom.
Mario, the inebriated bartender, greeted us warmly, but didn’t have change for our sole 100 Argentine peso bill (about $25 U.S. dollars). Instead of selling to us, he gave us the eight-peso grande Isenbeck for free.
“Bienvenedio a Argentina,” he welcomed.
His generosity extended to a few-minute conversation at our outside table.
Then, in farewell, he treated us as if we were a couple of regular Piasanos. Smooch. Smooch.
Nice Number: Getting simple
Our streak of days without watching TV.
It began after I watched bits of an Ecuadorian soccer game in Quito on April 28. It ended soon after Harold and Suzie let us housesit the farm on May 14.
We gorged ourselves on BBC World News, ESPN Deportes, some movies, and many episodes of “Arrested Development,” “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”
In the meantime, we missed out on new episodes of the nature show outside our thick wood door.
Some of the previous nature episodes we enjoyed included:
The thousands of stars and the silver streak of the Milky Way illuminating our sky. … The speedy pace of thin clouds as they race in from Chile. …
The smell of lavender on the path to Suzie and Harold’s house. … The shrieking and scattering of the bright-green, paraket-looking birds as we make that same walk to the house. … The expansive views of Mallin Ahogado and El Bolson after making a three-hour ascent up mountain Heilo Azul.
Admittedly, these nature episodes as part of our simple life are supplemented by the creature comforts of a not-so-simple electronic device in our cabana.
While I stoke the two heating stoves and Pessa cooks dinner, we enjoy the sounds omitted from my iPod and Pessa’s speakers.
Our recent mix included: Eric Clapton, Low Down Hold Up, A.A. Bondy, Deyarmond Edison, Ani DiFranco, Mason Jennings, The Be Good Tanyas, Bon Iver, James Taylor, The Greatful Dead and Conor Oberst.
When Pessa tried to switch from Oberst and add The Counting Crows to the mix, the iPod inexplicably stopped playing.
We haven’t been able to troubleshoot it since.
I guess our simple life just got a little more simple.