Ahhh, Mendoza. Wine country. Or at least, very close to it. Most of the vineyards and wineries are a short drive to the south of the city. I had my first chance to see the wine country yesterday when a small group from my language school went south to Maipu to tour two wineries and an olive oil factory there. The day was overcast so, unfortunately, the Andes were out of view… but I know they're there. Hopefully the sun will be shining on my next trips to the wineries. (I'm sure there will be several more visits while I'm here.) Harvest activities were in full swing at the first winery we visited, Ojo de Vino. Our guide said that the last of the grapes were just harvested in early May. The leaves on the vines have either dropped or turned that rusty orange color that is so characteristic of autumn. The weather has also been very fall-like here - several overcast days and one day of rain so far. And not the warm tropical rain I got used to in Costa Rica - this was cold, put-on-you-coat-and-gloves, Portland-type of rain.
Despite the weather, I spent the first week here just exploring the city and getting my bearings before I started language school this week. This city is relatively small and easy to get around on by foot. My apartment is about a 45 minute walk - or a 35 cent bus ride - from the city center. There's a huge park, San Martin Park, on the west side of the city that covers almost as much territory as the city itself, so I spent some time roaming around in there too. There are several plazas downtown with fountains and trees, and trees line almost every street downtown too. The streets are bordered by deep drainage channels that carry runoff from the Andes, which are right there - just to the west of the city, and help to irrigate the trees. It's super dry here - only 20-30 days of rain a year - and as soon as you get out of downtown with its tree-lined streets, you see how desert-like the natural vegetation is. So thank goodness for those drainage channels and the trees they support! Without them, downtown Mendoza would likely be kind of an eyesore. Much of downtown was destroyed during an earthquake in 1944, so most of the buildings here today were built in the 1950s-1970s and have a hard, concrete, communist-era bleakness to them.
I do feel like I'm experiencing real Argentina here in Mendoza, as opposed to the big-city, European feel of Buenos Aires and tourist-centric Bariloche. Especially in the suburb where I'm living, Godoy Cruz. There are a couple supermarket-y type markets, but much more common are little mom-and-pop stores - there's the fruit and vegetable merchant, the bakery, the meat and cheese shop. There's even a store that sells eggs. That's it - just eggs. There are also a few folks who just sell their goods from little carts on the street - bread, oranges, etc. There's one man that walks by the apartment every morning selling flowers - you know he's there because he's yelling "FLORES" as he walks by. There's also a door-to-door churro salesman in the afternoon whose little cart plays "It's a Small World" as he walks by. I also see a couple guys in horse-drawn carts go by my apartment every day. Sometimes they have vegetables in their carts, sometimes I can't tell what they have. That's something you don't see everyday… except here, you do.
In addition to the small-towny feel of the markets here, the customary Argentine daily routine is in full force here too, which is as follows: stores are open in the morning until about 1, then everything - EVERYTHING - closes until about 5, and they open again until about 8 or 9. (I say "about" because times are all a bit loosy-goosy here.) Meal times are set accordingly. Lunch is from 1-3 (when the shops close and everyone goes home for lunch and a siesta), tea time and a snack is post-siesta around 5, and dinner starts at 9 (after everything closes again) and can last several hours. I haven't been able to adjust my internal clock to this schedule yet - partly because I haven't been up for a 3- or 4-hour late-night dinner marathon by myself, but now that I'm in school and have others to join me, I'm sure I'll give it a shot.
And so, my extended stay in Mendoza has begun and, I think, so has my true Argentine experience. It's definitely a change of pace from home and from the other towns I've visited so far. I'm looking forward to getting to know the people and customs here. And of course, the wine! Fortunately, I have lots of time to get to know this place - I'll be here until mid-July - so I can pace myself.