Francisco the CouchSurfer who travels in and out of the wetlands to Corrientes did get back to me, twice, and after a series of bungled emails (9:30pm: “OK Ingrid I am in the city, I am going to take a shower then go out …” [I go out for a few beers with the hostel peeps.] 2am: “OK Ingrid I am going out now, do you want to come with?” I am not used to the timetable here in Argentina! People eat at 10pm! Go out after midnight! Whut! I’m too old for this shit) I decided to buy my bus ticket to Rosario.
When I got back from the bus terminal (the girl working at the hostel lent me her bus card because you have to have the exact change to get on the bus and coins are impossible to come by in this country, I don’t know why, am finding out) I emailed Francisco to let him know that I’d be leaving, but that I was keen to do something with him that afternoon.
This would be my first CS experience as a traveller; I waited outside the hostel nervously, no idea what to expect. Practising my smile. Lining up a few topics of conversation. Breathing deeply.
Francisco’s bakkie pulled up and a tall, dark-haired Argentinian sat hunched up behind the steering wheel. Playfully he chastised me for buying a ticket; I asked whether I could have it changed. Sure, he said.
I couldn’t believe it
How small is the world? Francisco was an exchange student in Bloemfontein in 1999, he attended Grey College. I know right! He even visited Kimberley when I was there. He even speaks some Afrikaans – you can imagine my surprise when he belted out a few lines in my mother tongue; I nearly fell off my chair.
I told him I was so glad he could speak English, because the night before I could tell that my companions were conducting a riveting conversation about politics, of which I couldn’t understand a word. “So,” he said, “you like politics…” And that’s how it all began.
Like most of the Argentinians I’ve met, Francisco is incredibly well read and very opinionated. He started telling me about Corrientes’ politics (his father is a recently retired senator), weaving it in with anecdotes about the country’s history. Those first few kilometres together, and the following four days, were incredibly enlightening, hugely interesting and deliciously stimulating (conversation and food). And, even though I was expecting to meet only Leftist socialists in Argentina, Francisco is anything but; nevertheless, we connected quickly and soon I felt that we had known each other for a long time. We are similar in our broodiness and stubbornness; what are a few differences in opinion between lifelong friends? I was content to just listen and learn.
“Normally I wouldn’t have replied [to the CouchSurfing request],” Francisco told me. “But when I saw you were a South African, I had to!” Finally, being a Saffer worked in my favour. And he really does love South Africans. He kept pointing out things I’d do, like not tossing a cigarette butt out the car window, and exclaim with comments like, “That’s the South African discipline! It’s incredible! You people are incredible! I learnt everything I know about discipline in South Africa! Wow!” and, when I told him why I don’t eat seafood, “You have principles! And you live according to them! It’s unbelievable! Oh my god!” I guess I took for granted that small everyday habits like not littering come naturally; I sent many messages into the universe thanking my parents for raising me the way they did.
Francisco showed me some sights around Corrientes that first day, contextualised with history lessons, and we went for lunch under the trees in Plaso de la Patria as bronzed bodies glowed under the harsh sun. We drove through those plains and farms I saw on my way into Corrientes, I was so delighted to be able to examine them more closely.
We went back to town to pick up our stuff, and then we hit the road to the 118, next stop: Abuelita Justa, Francisco’s family farm, about 150km from Corrientes.
It was dark when we got to Abuelita Justa (Granny Justa) so I didn’t really understand then what I was in for. My first encounter with the wildlife appears below, and even though I consider myself pretty badass, I squealed:
Francisco made a fire next to the 100-year-old (or more, memory fails me) farmhouse and I had Malbec red wine for the first time (smooth, amazing), as well as my first traditional asado (braai). Around us it was quiet, save for the soothing night sounds of owls and bugs and other assorted animals. Heaven.
Four days in paradise
I could not have struck it luckier. Francisco was more than generous. On the first day we went for a canoe ride on the lake in front of their house (wow) and for a swim in piranha infested waters (the fernet made us ballsy). I didn’t see any piranhas, but they are there. Francisco said that it should be sort of OK to swim there, but that it was imperative that I kept kicking my legs while in the water. Not too slow, or they’ll attack the toes. Not too fast, or they’ll assume I’ve been hurt and attack.
Thrilling. And a little stupid.
We went around the farm to check out their cows. He has two actual gauchos working for him there! They still wear their traditional getups. There are so many horses – thirty or so? Two lakes that I could see; the farm is part of the larger wetlands network. If I was any more laidback, I’d be standing on my head, ya dig? We went for a long horse ride at sunset, I even did some gardening, we watched some futbol on TV and I got all the social insights I needed, took long siestas (the heat really makes any kind of activity unbearable) and I just counted my blessings, one after the other. Then I counted them again, just to be sure.
I learnt to love fernet (it’s a bit of an obsession now) and mate even more. Francisco taught me how to make mate properly (I still need practise); we drank a shitload. We went to the Mburucuya National Park; once in the middle of the day (no sightings, unbearable heat) after many beers and fernet and-cokes and once at dusk – deer, capybaras, birds. Once, relaxing in the farm’s garden, I saw an actual alligator swimming in their lagoon. After we had swum in it.
Francisco put up a hammock for me to read in, and complimented my choice. I am taking it slow with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa (not knowing where my next English read will come from) – they have a whole shelf dedicated to his books.
Oh, and the full moon rising over that lagoon, massive and imposing and bright red, right in front of our line of vision. The silence and the mate covering me in a blanket of unmatched contentment. I will never forget those days and nights.
I had the honour of meeting Fran’s parents on my last day at the farm; a family asado and one that was a blessing to be a part of. We couldn’t talk to each other much, but did manage to get some points across. For instance, in Spanish Fran’s mother told me that, in Argentina, the women do all the house work. “Pero, no en mi casa” (But, not in my house) she said. Indeed, the men got up to clear and clean the dishes while she and I spoke about her grandchildren and her home.
It was hard to leave. I felt welcome and useful and non-intrusive there at Abuelita Justa; I adored the surroundings, breathed it all in every chance I got, felt I could stay and work for Fran forever (he certainly appreciated my work ethic), tending the garden and growing the vegetables, tending to the horses, washing the dishes, making the mate.
When all is said and done, I guess it’s better to rue a departure rather than to wish for it to come. I hope to return to this corner of Corrientes one day. It is a spectacular piece of planet. I love Argentina.