Thursday, January 17, 2008

Water into wine, Argentina-style...

After three weeks in Argentina, my veins are flowing with red wine. Vino tinto. Vino tinto. Y mas vino tinto.

With bottles of fine wine starting at 20 pesos (approximately $6 US) or less, a father with a sommelier's instincts for the best in wine, and a visit to Argentina's wine country, the sweet nectar of crushed grapes and tannins has replaced my red blood cells. I am a walking glass of Malbec.

I am filled with sweetness too because everything here is topped or filled with dulce de leche. Alfajores cookies, smothered in chocolate, ice cream, medialuna breakfast croissants. Everything goes better with dulce de leche, the thick caramel that I eat by the spoonful sometimes (only in Argentina!). My normally healthy diet of veggies, grains, fish and beans has gone to hell here, temporarily.

I - the ovalactopescatarian - even eat a bite of filet mignon one night after my sister raved in ecstasy about her meat. Argentina is famous for its steak, a beef-eater's paradise. This isn't one of the highlights of the country for a veggie like me, but it makes my father, sister and mom happy as they dine on barbecued pig, ribs and goat. The flesh is succulent, they tell me. Tasty. Delicious. I trust them, skip it, and happily eat more roasted vegetables, pasta, empanadas.

Of course, there is more to Argentina than the food and wine. Mountains. Rivers. Hot-blooded Latin men. Tango. Charming art deco neighborhoods in famous Buenos Aires. Friendly people everywhere who kiss you on both cheeks in greeting, even when you first meet them. Argentina is literally and figuratively warm. We roast in the 95 degree heat, and warm to the gestures and love of friends.

And we bask in the pleasures of a trip like this... We started the week in Rosario, where my sister Carrie and her husband Pablo live about three to six months out of the year. Rosario is the third largest city in Argentina, and is rapidly gaining a reputation as being one of the most enchanting cities to visit in South America.

Famous for its river, historic denizens (Che Guavara is originally from Rosario), and the beauty of its women, Rosarinos also claim that their ice cream is superior to that of Buenos Aires. We do an informal taste test in both cities, and I have to say that my family agrees with this assessment.

The first few days were a whirlwind of family, dining, shopping and holiday celebrations. We arrived the day after Christmas and met up with Pablo's family to toast the holiday season. This mean lots of dinners at Pablo's father's restaurant, where a plate of meat as big as my torso was served. Literally these ribs had to be 2 feet long and 1 across. We cooked asado (Argentinian barbecue) often in Pablo's backyard, and cooled off from the high temperatures by the pool.

New Year's Eve was another good excuse to throw a barbecue. Carrie, Pablo, my parents, my sister Margaret and I gathered with Pablo's brother Mariano, his beautiful Portuguese girlfriend Bea, and Pablo's mom, Cristina.

My mom and Margaret had prepared two big pots full of vegetables roasted with garlic and herbs, a swiss chard and swiss cheese quiche. Bea made a carrot and squash puree. Mariano tended to the meat on the grill for hours, salting it to keep it juicy and then slowly roasting it over the coals. We cracked open multiple bottles of red and white wine. At midnight everyone toasted and kissed.

Then the fireworks started overhead - red and green and white, bursting open in the sky above. We watched and drank and toasted and marveled at all being here together in the Argentina summertime in January. At 3 a.m. it was time to head out to the New Year's parties that last all night long.

This year I skipped the festivities, staying in the yard to hang with Carrie and Pablo, while Mariano, Bea and my sister Margaret headed out. Margaret partied until 10 a.m. and despite being covered with mosquito bites from the outdoor party at a country club was thrilled with the attention from all the Argentinian men. It's good to be a single American woman in Argentina!

We moved on next to Buenos Aires, city of tango and Art Deco buildings and wrought iron balconies and European flair. I would only have one day there because my next stop was Rio Ceballos, a small mountainous town in the Cordoba region.

I was fortunate enough to land an interview with a Zen Buddhist master, Dr. Augusto Alcalde, who also practices Chinese medicine, indigenous herb healing, tai chi and qigong. An unusual Roshi, he also rides a motor bike, smokes a pipe and drinks gin. He invited me to spend a few days at his home dojo, the Rincon Cultural Center.

For two peaceful days, we talked about Buddhism, life, flow, breath, meditation. We ate pizza with olives on top and sipped mate. I meditated in his home dojo, and felt this boundless sense of connection to all beings, a boundless sense of gratitude for every moment in my life that had brought me to that exact moment. I felt lightness, happiness, peace.

From Cordoba, replenished and rejuvenated, I flew to our next stop - Mendoza, in the wine region. Thereupon commenced three days of feasting - including one of the best meals I'd ever had at a restaurant called A Zafran, which came highly recommended by a few guests from the Bay Area who were staying at our hotel.

Wine, wine, and more wine - fine red wines flowing - beet and goat cheese salad, the best gnocchi I've ever had with carmelized onions and veggies, sweet and tender and melting on the tongue delicious, a dulce de leche and coconut torta for dessert. Every bite was exquisite.

Luckily to offset all the eating we had some outdoor adventures as well. I went white water rafting for the first time with Carrie, Pablo and Margaret. We suited up on shore in banana yellow waterproof poofy pants and tops and helmets clicked in place under our chins. We looked ridiculous, like the astronauts who dropped out of NASA class or a yellow version of the Michelin Man.

Luckily those crazy outfits do actually keep you (somewhat!) dry and warm when the icy water splashes over you. And kept my pale skin from frying. We tackled Class 4 rapids on my first time out, which to me at least felt brave!

To stave off any anxiety about being swept into a hole in the water, I treated the whole experience as a meditation, reminding myself to surrender to the power of the river. The water was awesome, swirling and raging, and sometimes we'd ride wild waves of it. The view was spectacular - mountains and pure blue skies as far as the eye can see. I came off the boat feeling exhilarated, happy and slightly relieved to have not gone overboard.

Wine, water, and Buddhist wisdom... It was a magical three weeks. The water in my veins turned into wine. The wisdom of a Zen Buddhist master helped me to feel more grounded, and alive. The time with family was a gift and blessing.

Life, let's face it, is divine...

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