Like anyone preparing for a trip overseas, I’d scoured the local bookstore’s travel section for anything even remotely related to my destination. If the Travel Channel had sent one of its many bubbly and eccentric hosts to Argentina, I dropped what I was doing and turned up the volume. This mental preparation always begins months before I’m scheduled to leave. Flipping through all the colorful photos in the guidebooks makes everything more bearable, more worthwhile: classes, part-time jobs, drawn-out days of boredom. It’s a way of getting excited, of experiencing those bursts of adrenaline you used to only get as a little kid around Christmas time.
In this case, my mental pre-travel “pep rally” began years before that long-awaited, mythical junior-year semester. I’d known since high school that I wanted to study abroad in Argentina. I have no idea what brought about the sudden interest; the extent of my knowledge at the time was that Che Guevara was born there, everyone was a soccer prodigy, and that it rested somewhere at the extreme opposite end of the hemisphere, within spitting distance of Antarctica. This all created a strange image in my head of football-juggling revolutionaries riding motorcycles across the windswept pampas (which, as it turns out, is really not so far from the truth). I was hell-bent on getting there as soon as possible, and began my travel research in earnest.
I learned that Buenos Aires has more psychiatrists per capita than any other city in the world, and that it’s possible to make a living as a professional dog-walker. I learned that despite the large Jewish population (third largest in the world, after Israel and the U.S.), the countryside is sprinkled here and there with the occasional retired Nazi, hiding out under improbable Spanish pseudonyms. And I learned from a casual remark one night at the dinner table that my great-grandmother, the middle daughter of Neapolitan peasants, was almost whisked away to Argentina in an arranged marriage. (Could this explain, I thought, the latent, unexplainable pull I felt towards this bizarre, faraway place?)
The travel books and forgotten bits of family history all added to my excitement and understanding of the country I planned to visit. One thing stood out above the rest, though, and stuck with me from the earliest planning stages down to the moment of arrival. The host of a now-discontinued travel show hitched a ride to a small town in the middle of nowhere called El Bolsón. She interviewed a scraggly, soft-spoken expatriate named Lewis in the ramshackle house he’d built himself, and discussed the merits of living in the hippie capital of South America. Lewis was poor and eccentric and by most “normal” standards probably slightly crazy. But he seemed genuinely happy.
I made a mental note of El Bolsón and promised I’d try to see it for myself.
* * *
On the outskirts of the city of Bariloche there lies a winding, dusty road. The road meanders its way through picturesque mountains and valleys, amidst all of which lies El Bolsón. Liz, Mallory and I glanced at the faded highway sign, then back at each other, and exchanged shrugs which could only have meant “Well, this must be it.”
I had never traveled with such a carefree mindset. We had no transportation, no hostel rooms booked, not a clue of what awaited us in El Bolsón. I couldn’t even decipher the town’s name – “Gringo Deathtrap,” for all I knew. All we had to go on was the five minutes Globe Trekker host Justine Shapiro had spent there back in the mid 90’s, and a few backpacks stuffed with camping gear.
“It’s a hippie town in the middle of nowhere,” was what I had told my travel companions back in Buenos Aires. I can’t believe they agreed to track it down with me.
After about a half hour of shuffling down the side of the road under the heat of the sun and the weight of our packs, an SUV pulled over and the three of us shot each other mischievous glances, like little kids who, unbeknownst to their parents, are in the act of getting away with something. We had hitchhiked two days earlier to Bariloche and felt we were quickly becoming experts at the frowned-upon practice (haciendo dedo in Spanish, or “making finger”). The driver hopped out of the car and immediately began loading our stuff into the trunk. This breach of hitchhiking etiquette took me by surprise – doesn’t he even want to know where we’re going, I thought, before all our crap is in his car? – but with my broken Spanish I winged it as best as I could.
“Where are you headed?” I asked him.
He paused between backpacks and looked at me over his shoulder. “El Bolsón,” he replied with a smirk, as if to say, “Where else would I be going on this one-way road, gringo?” Fair enough.
We piled in and introduced ourselves. Juanjo, from what I could gather, owned some sort of outdoor adventure company. Picking up hitchhikers must have been an everyday occurrence for Juanjo, judging by how nonchalantly he gave us a lift. That, or he just wanted to spice up an otherwise boring drive by flirting with Liz and Mallory. Either way, I was grateful for the ride. If he explained where he was from or how he ended up in El Bolsón, it was drowned out by the Pearl Jam blasting from the radio, so I left the conversation to Liz, whose Spanish was considerably better than mine, and watched the passing landscape.
After an hour or so we rolled into El Bolsón on its one main road. Juan dropped us off in the center of town and we unloaded our packs, thanking him profusely. He shrugged it off – “No es nada” – and wished us the best.
Walking through El Bolsón’s central craft fair felt like stepping back four decades in time. The sixties came and never left. Tie-dyed vendors hawked handmade jewelry, instruments, medicinal herbs, and folk art. Babies slept soundly in canvas slings hanging from their dreadlocked, barefoot mothers, and three particularly limber young Argentines practiced yoga to the soft rhythms of homemade Caribbean steel drums. Somewhere amidst all this was Lewis, that harmonica-playing rat-race dropout from the travel show. Where exactly was his haphazard, thrown-together hodgepodge of a house? Across the narrow river that snaked alongside the town? Somewhere on the mountain, quietly overlooking the festivities below?
I didn’t expect to find him. After all, the show was filmed years earlier and for all I knew, Lewis might have packed up and left, off into the forests like some modern-day hermit. But I did want to find out what attracted him to El Bolsón in the first place. Why this place? Sure, it was beautiful and free-spirited, with plenty to attract the idealistic or the disenchanted, but it seemed to have gotten awfully touristy since Justine Shapiro last trekked there and I got the impression those three yogis doing sun salutations in the park were recent arrivals from Buenos Aires, just passing through for a quick weekend of cleansing. But surely some of that original spark was still there?
After perusing the craft fair and getting some food, we made our way to a campsite on the shores of the Río Quemquemtreu. Really, it was just a large backyard billed as a campsite, but it was pleasant enough and the owner was rivaled only by Juanjo in terms of easygoingness. He took a lot of pride in his little slice of hippie paradise and I noticed that most of the other campers were vendors from the fair, living somewhat temporarily out of their tents and sleeping bags.
We set up camp and decided to take a hike before the sun set. From the mountains encircling El Bolsón you can see the Río Azul lazily winding down in the valley, so with blankets and flashlights in hand we set out for the trail to the overlook.
“How late should I wait up before getting worried?” asked the campsite owner jokingly.
“Estaremos bien,” we answered, “No te preocupes.”
The path to the trailhead led through some of the residential parts of El Bolsón, away from the popular town center and the craft stands. The houses were all in varying degrees of completion, a smattering of 2×4’s here, a carefully constructed brick wall there. Some had small chimneys puffing smoke into the inky blue sky. Through a few windows I could see faces I recognized from the fair earlier, preparing dinner or stoking the fireplace. Lewis’ house, I remembered, wasn’t much different from these; they had the same honest look about them, they said “This is sufficient for me, I don’t need more than this.”
The houses became fewer the farther up the trail we went, until they disappeared altogether, giving way to endless rows of wild blackberry bushes. Wrapped in my blanket like a poncho and picking the wild berries, I looked and felt like one of the long-gone Indians for which the mountains and rivers were named. A family passed us on their way down from the overlook and exchanged friendly greetings.
“Only a little further, friends, almost there!”
Looking down on the river underneath the slowly emerging stars, I started to understand why Lewis and the others who chose to live in El Bolsón seemed so happy. Sure, the tourists came and went (maybe a little more frequently than before), and the whole hippie atmosphere was marketed more than it used to be, but the actual inhabitants retained their dignity and their independence, not to mention the carefree kindness that made El Bolsón famous to begin with. This was evident from the very beginning in Juanjo.
I never met Lewis, or had the chance to ask him why he chose to make his home where he did, but in the end I didn’t have to. The happiness I came looking for was present in everyone I encountered.