Eat, (Couch)Surf, Love
CORDOBA, ARGENTINA: November 23-27
Leah: Warning: extremely fabulous Couchsurfing experience to follow—we are on a mission to open everyone’s eyes to this incredible organization and this blog post is no exception! Our overnight and uneventful bus from Tucuman safely deposited us in Cordoba around 7:30 a.m. and we sought out a coffee for Steve so we could sip and wait until 9:00 a.m., when our Couchsurfer host would be arriving to collect us. We already liked Cordoba for the fact that several of our Couchsurfer requests were not only replied to (we haven’t had the best luck with people getting back to us in Central and South America), but that we had been accepted by multiple hosts as well, which meant that we were in the lovely position of choosing our “home” for the next few days. We picked Luciano, or Lucho, a kinesisiology student who spoke beautiful English and had never had surfers stay before! It seemed meant to be, since his school obligations and weekend trips home had prevented him from hosting for over a year; we happened to be in Cordoba the week after his exams ended and right before he left for a 4 month working trip to the US. I don’t know who was more excited about this arrangement, but we definitely felt like it was meant to be.
We informed Lucho that we’d be meeting our Salt Flat friends, Megan, Taryn and Augustin, later in the day for a belated ”Thanksgiving” get together, but that in the meantime we’d love to explore his bustling student-oriented town (as the second biggest city in the country and home to 7 universities, Cordoba hums with young energy, bustling parks and myriad shops, restaurants, markets and tourist sights). We headed off to the Mercado Norte, where we purchased salad ingredients, cheese, meat and dulce membrillo, a solid block of fruit puree. It’s typically eaten in the morning for breakfast, accompanied by cheese, bread and dulce de patata, another sweet puree made from potatoes. Back at the apartment Lucho schooled us in the local music, cuarteno, while we noshed away and chatted, only stopping to slice off another piece of membrillo or take another bite of salad. And then of course there was the mate (pronounced ma-tay).
(Steve: Don’t even get me started on the free education available to students in Argentina. This had me riled up most of the time we were in Cordoba. Students still have to work hard and pass entrance exams but quality undergraduate and graduate degrees are offered for little or no cost to Argentines…as well as Chileans, Bolivians, and whoever else decides to come over. Tell me that the U.S’s under-education due to the enormous cost of college isn’t going to catch up to us…many can argue that it already has…)
As the clock neared midnight, we figured we should make like Cinderella and catch our pumpkin home before Lucho wondered if the city had swallowed his first surfers, so we hightailed it home where Lucho and a friend were sharing a beer. I was more than ready for bed, but Argentines typically finish (Steve: um, or start) dinner around midnight, so the evening was just gearing up, although I remained blissfully unaware of what was to come. Lucho informed us that we needed to try Fernet, the alcoholic toxin of choice for Cordobans which is always mixed with coke, so the four of us headed to a corner bar and grabbed a table on a sidewalk (as for the Fernet, I’m glad I tried it, but Argentina can keep it in my opinion). His friend was a warm and delightful evangelical (he good-naturedly ribbed her about it all night) and when I shared that I worked on HIV/AIDS issues at home, she confided that her father was living with HIV as a result of a blood transfusion in the 90s. Yowza.
It was CRAZY! Nobody, I repeat nobody, really goes out dancing before 2 a.m., so we were right in the thick of it. Girls in perfect makeup and towering stilettos and spandex tight miniskirts that ended right below the curve of their derrieres sashayed down the street past the appreciative males , local club touts on the corners handed out coupons for free entry, music bellowed from every door and lines snaked down the sidewalks as the typical Friday night (now Saturday morning) club scene pulsed and shimmered with life. Now just imagine block after block after block of this—I’ve never seen so many bars and clubs one after the other in my life! But to top it off I felt woefully underdressed in my black travel pants, Keens, and thrifted tank top from back in Panama as we wove through crowds of beautifully dressed, perfectly coiffed and delightful smelling 20-somethings. Lucho happened to be friends with the door personnel at Aqua (hooray for connected CS hosts!), which meant free entry, so into the belly of the beast we went.
The next day found us going on an adventure outside of the city limits as we hopped a local bus to Cuesta Blanca, a small weekend retreat enclave with a shimmering, cool and clear river weaving through the homes on the banks. Locals splashed and swam in the mineral-rich water and the sand sparkled so much it looked like someone had sprinkled it liberally with glitter. We sipped our mate, nibbled on fruit and talked about our dreams for the future as the lazy heat of the day washed over us. After a while we walked through and along the water, taking in the views, scampering over rocks and enjoying this little slice of natural paradise that tourists would never even know about. In fact, on the way back we even stumbled across a tree laden with wild blackberries, so the three of us stuffed our faces like bears (and had the red juice stains on our skin to prove it.
We fell into a comfortable and easy regularity with Lucho that entailed rising in the morning around 10:30 and enjoying breakfast while discussing the day’s plan, further dissecting Argentine culture or helping him plot out his upcoming trip to Naples, Florida. We moseyed around the city sipping mate in too many parks and outdoor gathering places to count, played with street dogs, chatted with friends and family who dropped by the apartment and enjoyed the gorgeous architecture, cathedrals and museums on every corner. Meanwhile, our thoughtful and attentive host always made sure we were well-fed and up to speed on the various epicurean delights of Cordoba, often footing the bill for beverages or snacks despite our attempts to pay. He also went out of his way to escort us all over town and succeeded so well in correcting our Spanish that not only did we drastically improve, but also started speaking with an Argentine accent. Lucho’s maturity also astounded us; he may have been our youngest host so far, but after living on his own for years (there are no dorms for his university) he was incredibly more adult than most 21-year-olds I knew back in college.
We also intercepted Lucho’s sister and her friends; since Steve and I had bought the ingredients for fish tacos earlier in the day and had more than enough to go around, Lucho’s brother, sister and another of their friends came over for dinner. So there we were at 10:30 p.m. trying to make authentic San Diego fish tacos, including guacamole and white sauce, but without limes, jalapeños and some key spices. Despite the abundance of other citrus, apparently limes usually aren’t used which came as a huge shock to us. However, we made it work and once plated the food really did look and taste divine, even without the missing ingredients. The only unfortunate part was that in our food frenzy we completely forgot to take pictures of our dinner party , so you’ll just have to imagine the array of colors, textures and smiling faces! To round out the evening we had a decadent chocolate mousse made only from bittersweet chocolate and fresh eggs (a recipe from Couchsurfers who had stayed with us a few years ago) and topped with fresh mint sprigs from outside Lucho’s apartment. Everyone oohed and aahed extensively over our taste of home (especially the fish taco sauce Steve whipped together), so we considered it a success although it was the lively conversation and list making of Argentine foods we still needed to try that we enjoyed the most. Lucho’s friends and family are truly top notch and we enjoyed everyone we had the chance to meet through him.
After the squall passed we were heaving our traveling homes on our backs when Lucho exclaimed, “wait!” and ran into the kitchen, returning with his mate cup and bombilla. “It’s not very beautiful,” he said, smiling, “but this is what you first drank mate from and now you’ll remember the city and places we went every time you use it.” And then of course my own personal floodgates opened; an Argentine’s mate is close to a sacred possession and I couldn’t believe this final act of selflessness and hospitality. I mean, I could, as this was Lucho we were dealing with here, but the highly personal gift blew us away. I wiped the tears and we gave him multiple hugs and kisses while assuring him that he always has a place to stay in the U.S. wherever we end up.
Couchsurfing website, even if you may not be willing or able to take the plunge yourself. This mate is for you, Lucho!
CLICK FOR CORDOBA PICTURES.