The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
A Day in the Life of Mendoza
I never like to presume something about a story or a person until I got there.
A couple of years ago, my husband and I were doing some research in Mendoza on Argentina’s wine industry. Although we had rented a car and logged thousands of kilometers, we only had encountered to that point the face that Argentina likes to show to foreigners and, indeed, to see in the mirror. Near to our departure, however, I caught a snippet of Argentina’s other face while having lunch one day. And while it tells me something about one of the most sophisticated countries in South America, it challenges me to reflect on whether our stories in North America regarding our indigenous people are really that different.
Situated in a desert at the foot of the Andes, the people of Mendoza know how to turn a catastrophe into an opportunity. After an earthquake all but destroyed the colonial town in the last century, it was rebuilt in a way that capitalized on its one abundant resource, water running off of the mountains.
Based on the idea developed by the Incas that the runoff could be channeled to irrigate the town, and later the vineyards, an Italian engineer helped Mendoza rebuild its city around open gutters of fast running water. What is now Mendoza’s central nervous system makes it possible for all of its inner streets to be lined with huge Plane trees throwing a shimmering green canopy over the city. Without these overarching branches, a car’s windshield wipers would melt onto the glass. My husband Dan and I walk around this cool oasis on broad sidewalks onto which restaurants spill, and each block is staked out by patient, street dogs that the kitchens or clients keep well fed. Andes runoff takes care of their thirst. If it takes a village to raise a child, the same can be said of street dogs in small town Argentina.
Café life means people watching. We’re reminded that Mendoza is on the edge of that part of the country bordering Bolivia to the north and therefore you’re more likely to see indigenous people here than in Buenos Aires or the central sierras. Dan and I are taking lunch open air. A stylish young business man in a charcoal black suit and open white shirt sits down with his friend at the next table. I sit back with my espresso doble and watch a short history of colonial South America.
A middle aged Indian man holding a wooden box falls onto his knees and starts cleaning the businessman’s shoes. He applies a few fingers of polish to each shoe and rubs it in by hand, massaging the leather with swollen, tough fingers. The businessman carries on conversing with his companion while checking messages on his cell phone, an action that exposes gold rings on two fingers and a thick silver one on his thumb. On his wrist, he wears a gold watch with a heavy chinked band. He has long hair like Jesus, but jewelry like Pilot. The Indian, probably a Bolivian, pulls large brushes out of his box like a magician and buffs hard and long to conjure up his own face in the shoe.
When he was finished, the business man pulls out a roll of bills, and under the expectant eye of the Indian, carefully thumbs through the deck until he reaches the bottom, from which he teases out a two peso note. The Indian takes the bill, bows his head and backs away.
I turn my attention away at the press of a cold, wet nose on my leg and soulful eyes fixed on the scraps of my beef steak. I look down at the street dog but don’t see him. I’m preoccupied, reflecting on what I’ve learned here, in one of the most sophisticated countries of South America.
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