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Paradise found!

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During our travels, we had encountered several Uruguayans, and whenever we asked them for recommendations on where to go, we would receive the same answer: “You have to go to Cabo Polonio.” Described as a tiny fishing village of forty inhabitants hidden amongst sand dunes, with no electricity and no way of reaching it save for horseback or 4X4, Polonio intrigued us enough to attempt a trip there. Exactly as all our Uruguayan acquaintances had described, our bus dropped us off on the side of the highway. It was already night, and we were totally lost in the pitch black but for a tiny light in the distance. We stumbled towards it and found it to be the park office, where presently, a 4X4 dune buggy pulled up, and we clambered aboard to be carted off into the darkness.

Our transportation… but picture riding atop this in inky blackness!
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After a few minutes of bumpy driving, we reached a park office and a ranger came out. “Tienen una carpa?” he asked brusquely. (Do you guys have a tent?)
“Si, por supuesto!” we responded, eager to prove that we were prepared to camp, since we were entering a national park, and as we Canadians know, national parks were made for camping!
“Hand it over,” he demanded.
“… ?!??” replied us.
“Tents are prohibited in Uruguayan national parks. You’ll have to leave it with me.”

Away went our romantic plans of camping on the beach and enjoying to the fullest this rustic experience. Plus, our tent was our baby, from which we hadn’t been separated since we received her. Could we trust this man to care for her as we did, and did he realise how indispensable she was to us?!? Regardless, we handed it over, and with many bemused looks exchanged between the two of us, our buggy continued to bump away into the void.

About halfway through the forty-minute journey through the dunes, we became aware of a strange sound, and if we strained our eyes in the blackness, we thought we could make out odd white shapes just in front of us. We finally realized that the sound was the roaring of the ocean, while the whiteness was huge waves crashing ashore, barely ten meters from where we were driving. We were completely surrounded by and lost in the darkness: the only relief came from the beam of Polonio’s lighthouse.

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We were dropped off in an open space, and while we stood bewildered by the disorientating blackness and the vicious winds, we heard a disembodied voice asking if we needed a place to stay. Disembodied voices normally aren’t the most reassuring, but when your only other apparent guide is a lighthouse surrounded by menacing rocks, even a disembodied voice can sound relatively friendly.

We followed our shadowy host through ankle-deep sand and waving sea grasses, arriving finally at what turned out to be not a hostel, like we had been expecting, but his own house. Gabriel, our host, offered us the loft of his tiny, one-room beach shack, and while we hauled our bags up the ladder to our room, he lit candles and invited us to share his dinner of buñuelos de algas (aka seaweed fritters) and a single glass of red wine for the three of us (“The glass is new!” he told us proudly.)

After eating our fill of fritters, he then invited us out for a drink. We stepped back out into the dark and the howling winds, wading through sand dunes until Gabriel commented, “Well, we’re now on Main Street!” In the dark, Main Street felt exactly like every other sand dune we had just crawled through. (In the light, it turned out that wasn’t far from the truth.) We entered what looked like a massive heap of vines, but turned out to be a bar, dimly lit by candles, with little private “rooms” formed by bamboo partitions overgrown by living plants. Josh and I sat there with Gabriel, feeling as though we had stumbled into Lothlórien.

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Main street in the light of day. (Note the large bush behind Josh? Yep, that’s the bar!)
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The next morning, it was the sun that woke us up. The window right next to our bed was lit up by a dazzling glow, and rolling over, we were greeted by the view of the sun rising over the Atlantic. We ran outside and directly into the ocean, because what we had been unable to see the previous night was that there was absolutely nothing between our front door and the shoreline.

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View from our front door:
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We were planning to stay only two days in Polonio before continuing northwards. But when the day of our planned departure found us lounging in hammocks while gazing dreamily at the ocean, we suddenly wondered why we were in such a hurry to leave. If seven months had taught one important lesson about travel, it was that seeing ten new and different places will never be as amazing as finding one incredible place that you love.

So, two days stretched into an unforgettable week filled with sunrise and sunset swims, watching dolphins frolic so close to the shore we could see their faces, enjoying many performances by a hilarious folklore music troupe from Ushuaia, and many candlelit dinners (in Polonio, there isn’t any other kind!) of shrimp empanadas and shark ravioli, all caught that morning by the town fishermen.

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Shark* sighting from the beach!
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*Turned out to be a dolphin, but the picture was too good to pass up!

Lunch in our favourite empanada place (with our favourite traveling music troupe, Los Pinguïnos de Ushuaia, serenading us!)
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Josh taking on the Atlantic (…and valiantly losing)
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Everyone Together practice (having to go back to practicing in the basement will be hard after this location!)
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Lessons learnt?
Never be in a hurry to end a beautiful experience. And always take travel advice from the locals. Lonely Planet just doesn’t cut it!

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The land of meat and mate*

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*This title could also refer to Argentina, but impressively enough, even Argentines admit (albeit suspiciously) that Uruguayans actually surpass them in their love of mate.

The comparison between Uruguay and Argentina has been likened to that between Canada and the USA, where one is the smaller, gentler, and more mellow version of the other. Since Argentina was already one of the most tranquilo and lovable places we had ever encountered, we were curious to see how Uruguay could compare.

Incredibly enough, not only did Uruguay hold its own against our beloved Argentina, it came very close to completely stealing our hearts.

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We arrived in Uruguay by boat, slipping quietly down the Rio de la Plata from Tigre, Argentina:

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We spent the night in the port town of Carmelo, enjoying our first taste of wonderful Uruguayan hospitality, as well as wonderful Uruguayan pizza from our lovely hotelier who insisted on ordering our dinner for us. After a lazy day spent walking along the river, we boarded a bus for the sprawling capital of Montevideo.

Even though the weather was grim, with ferocious winds and sudden downpours, we walked along Montevideo’s Rambla (waterfront), nearly being swept into the river by gusting waves. Any energy lost in maneuvering the Rambla was more than compensated for by the gorgeous asado we then consumed for lunch at the famous Mercado del Puerto (The Port Market, est. 1885). The Mercado can best be described as the Forks Market… but with every food stall filled with meat, and only meat. Lured to a table by a free sampling of Uruguay’s signature drink of Medio y Medio (half champagne, half wine) and by the demonstrative platter of sample cuts of meat, the Mercado’s parillas proved well-deserving of their fame (when your appetizer is several chorizos, you know the entree is going to be amazing!)

Swept away by La Rambla:
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Josh’s lustful gaze roams over the many parillas of Mercado del Puerto:
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After a few days in Montevideo, we were ready to explore some of Uruguay’s more remote beauty… But that is a story for another blog! 🙂

Córdoba Part I: For the history buff

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After spending nearly six months talking to Argentines about our travels, there was one thing we’d learnt for sure: you gotta go to Córdoba.

Everyone had their different reasons, but the general vibe we got was that this was Argentina’s ‘character province’. And even after Mendoza’s flying melons, I think they may have been correct.

Our time in the capital city was spent mostly on history lessons. In the 70s, Córdoba city was the headquarters of the military coup’s brutal secret police (the D2), as well as the prison where ‘the disappeared’ (aka any man, woman, or child who voiced the question of where democracy had gone) were kept, often until their deaths. The prison has now been turned into a museum (El Museo de la Memoria, “The Museum of Memory”), its walls eerily left in their original crumbling state. It’s hard to say what the most powerful aspect of this museum was: the fact that such atrocities have happened so recently and yet are relatively unknown internationally, the sign at the end that says “if you were born in the early 1970s and are unsure of your identity, talk to us, we can help” and actually means it, or the fact that people we consider peers here in Argentina personally know people whose whereabouts are still unknown as a result of these actions. It’s bizarre to be on the other side of the world and still have history hit so close to home.

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Names and faces of The Disappeared
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Library of forbidden books
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Our second bit of history came from the nearby town of Alta Gracia, which in the 30s was the childhood home of Ernesto Che Guevara, aka this guy:

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Thanks to my trusty Latin American Revolutions course at UofM, I knew there was more to Che than the classic picture that’s on every punk rock poster and the odd Taco Bell commercial, but his home-turned-museum more than confirmed this. It was a very well-done tribute to a man who loved life and fought with integrity against injustice.

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Ernesto’s med school grad picture
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Evolving modes of transportation:
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Che Guevara used this toilet! (we didn’t 😦 )
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Alta Gracia dique built by the Jesuits in 1659
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¡Viva la Vino!

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We wrote it off as just another funny but exaggerated story told by our hosts: sure, Argentines are notoriously loco for their fiestas, but there was no way a parade would actually have beauty queens hurling fruit into the crowds.

To our hosts – and Vendimia – we apologize for doubting you.

Friday night, Josh and I followed the excited throng to Calle San Martin in Mendoza capital. We wedged ourselves between two little girls decked out in sparkles and crowns and waving baskets adorned with “Señorita Agostina’s” picture.

Turning water into wine (or at least close enough!)
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Every summer, each region of the Mendoza province elects a queen, and in the weeks preceding Vendimia, pictures of these regional queens pop up everywhere: in store windows, in the newspaper, in our host family’s kitchen (where the kids then demanded that Josh and I pick our favorite queen…) The reina madness culminates in Via Blanca, a procession of regional floats each bearing their queen and all her attendants decked out in prom dresses and hair that would do Dolly Parton proud. While the queen graciously waves to her adoring public, her attendants have the task of hurling regional delicacies into the crowd. Apples, grapes, bottles of Mendocino spring water, bottles of wine, melons, and in the case of one float, bits of asado meat are all chucked with gusto into a sea of outstretched hands and (for the Vendimia-veterans out there) baskets on tall poles.

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It felt a bit like the Winnipeg Hydro Santa Claus Parade I attend every year with my mom… Just put Santa in a sparkly dress, and have cantaloupe exploding at your feet instead of pieces of candy cane.

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What would a wine festival be without Bacchus? (Hey, the girls in the crowd need some eye candy too!)
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Only in Argentina: The asado float!
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To further celebrate Mendoza wine, we took a day trip to Maipu, a tiny town about an hour from the capital, where we spent a gloriously sunny afternoon biking around town and exploring its countless wineries and olive groves.

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La Bodega Rural (Est. 1885)

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Wine press and skins made of entire cow hides
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La Trapiche (Est. 1883)
* Fun fact: The main man at Trapiche was originally in cahoots with La Rural! *

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For all you wine enthusiasts out there, head to your nearest LC (or gas station, you crazy Yanks), pick up a bottle of La Trapiche, and think of us!
FYI: Don’t waste time worrying about “good” or “bad” vintages of Mendocino wine. Mendoza has near-perfect growing conditions 363/365 days of the year, so every year is a good year!

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Ode to El Bolsón

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We will soon be leaving El Bolsón and making our way to Valparaiso, Chile: partly to frolic in the other ocean, partly to take care of our pesky visas. We are incredibly excited to be back on the road and to see what other wild and beautiful adventures Argentina has in store for us. But it will be incredibly hard to leave El Bolsón: this funny little town has become a home to us, and we will miss the many amazing characters here who have become true friends, and our faithful haunts where we spent many lovely evenings.

So we present to you: Our ode to El Bolsón!

El Plaza Pagano: Home of many incredibly talented artists, food vendors, fire jugglers, and half our WWOOF hosts.
(Oh yes, and the uncomfortably forward gypsies. They told me my sin was the love of work, and then tried to sell me a magic lotion.)
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Our wonderful friend, former host, and “in” to the feria world!
(and Panza Arriba – one of our gatitos! :D)
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Café con leche + La Nona’s medialunas = The best breakfast
(outside of Benito or Tinker Creek, of course!)
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“¡Treinte centímetros de sabor!” … And 187.5 centimetres of happiness.
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Wafles (“WAH-flays”): who knew ham & cheese could give white sauce a run for its money?
(Note from Sara: The views expressed in this caption are not representative of the authorship in its entirety)
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Argentine food doesn’t have much spice… Their beer is another matter!
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The five of us: Our former hosts and their car.
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Hike to Río Azul:
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Hike to Cajón de Azul:
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Beautiful El Bolsón:
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¡Hay buena onda en El Bolsón! 🙂

On top of the world

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Having accepted that Canadians are the only people wise enough to declare Boxing Day a statutory holiday, Sara and I awoke the day after Christmas fully prepared to put in our six hours’ work in the strawberry field. Thoughts of lazily sitting by a fire with good books were far from our mind.

This was probably a good thing.

Halfway through our morning, our French friends wandered over to us and said that there was not a lot of work to be done that week, and our hosts had given us permission to take off for a few days and explore the area. They asked if we’d like to join them on a hike up to one of the many mountain refugios nearby. They seemed to already have it very well-organized (keep in mind that Jean was a Boy Scout, and that Judi works as a shepherd in the French Alps), so we enthusiastically agreed.

We packed our bags full of food which they had already bought (two boxes of white wine seemed to me an odd thing to carry up a mountain, but hey, I guess some cultural stereotypes have to be respected!) and set out to El Refugio Motoco.

What followed was by far the most physically grueling experience of our lives. These two Manitoba kids were very unaccustomed to walking straight uphill at the best of times, let alone in +35°C weather, let alone for six hours straight. When we explained this to our dear French Alpine guides, who would bound up cliffs like mountain goats and look back at us with curious concern, they replied (very apologetically!) that they thought all Canadians lived in the mountains and did hikes like this everyday. Desolé, mes amis!

Sweet nectar of life: Our grueling trek was made immensely more refreshing by many stops to drink from the crystal-clear mountain streams
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One of many precarious log bridge crossings:
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8000-year old Alerce forests:
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It wasn’t until the final kilometer of the trek, however, that we encountered the greatest obstacle of the journey: a herd of over a dozen wild cattle, forming a impenetrable wall across our path. This was Judi’s (the alpine shepherd) moment to shine, as he plucked himself a long branch of bamboo and plowed through the bovine barrier. Argentina is a camper’s paradise, with neither mosquitoes nor bears nor wolves to worry about… but they do have wild cows. :S

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Dark was closing in on us as we finally arrived at el Refugio, a log cabin situated next to a burbling mountain stream. We were greeted by the log cabin’s sole inhabitant, a kind man named Luis who was surprisingly normal for someone who has spent the last four years living as a literal mountain hermit, as well as his massive dog, Loba (meaning ‘she-wolf’), and his two ridiculously fluffy kittens (the latter seems to be a theme of this trip, much to Sara’s endless joy). We talked with him for quite a bit, and as soon as he heard that Sara and I were married he disappeared back into his shack and emerged a moment later with a bottle of wine, “para tu luna de miel” he said. Apparently Argentine hospitality continues even at 1500m above sea level!

Jean and Judi got to work right away building a fire and a tent, both out of the bamboo that grew thick around us. We enjoyed a delicious supper of pasta, sardines, and, yes, white wine which was now even more in abundance, and fell asleep under the stars.

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We awoke the next morning to Jean asking us if we wanted to go for a six-hour hike up the mountain. Déjà vu, I thought to myself, but he was serious. Apparently another six hours would take us to the summit. Sara and I looked at each other with a bemused “well, we’ve come this far” kind of look, and prepared for another trek.

Upwards we went, encountering sparkling beaches of red stone, precarious wooden footbridges spanning death-defying canyons and rapids (hum the Indy song to yourself here, because we did a lot of that!), thundering waterfalls, majestic lookouts, and huge patches of knee-deep snow, until finally we saw the pole which marked the summit.

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With renewed vigor, we scrambled up the scree slope until we reached it…only to find that it was only a ledge, with the mountain continuing mightily higher. We repeated this process two or three more times, until finally we crossed the mountain’s rocky spine and saw the opposite side drop down into a churning panorama of peaks and valleys. We had gotten so used to looking at the beautiful view behind us that seeing the world stretch on in all directions was dizzying. From our new vantage point, Jean told us, we were seeing over the border into Chile, and more mountains than we could possibly count. We ate some cookies and began the journey home.

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100km of hiking and 2km of altitude in 3 days. Not our usual Boxing Day routine, but one we will never forget.

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Granja #3: Strawberry fields forever…

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Wow, it seems like we haven’t written in this blog since last year!

* Pause for all the Melnyk clan to laugh appreciatively *

Happy 2012 to you all! I don’t know how the northern hemisphere is faring, but down here, Josh & I are still married and doing very well, so if Winnipeg actually did get an Ikea, I will assume the world decided not to end after all. (For the confused of you, ask Josh one day about some of his favourite EA stories :P)

After leaving our farm full of nuevas experiencias (if you missed it, read about it here!), we were suddenly left without anywhere to go, because our illustrious “friends” (yes, of the lumberjack, strawberry and rainbow variety) completely disappeared. We took a week as a mini-holiday and stayed in various hostels and campgrounds around El Bolsón, meeting some incredibly interesting characters and trying to find a new farm to take us in.

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Applying for university from our campground in Argentina… Just another normal day while traveling! 😛
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We ended up receiving a cryptic but friendly reply from a WWOOF farm we had emailed awhile back: it said merely, “¿Tienen carpa, chicos?” (“Do you guys have a tent?) We got picked up the next day by Carlos and driven out to a strawberry farm near Lago Puelo, a small town about 30 km from El Bolsón. “¡Hay un montón de WWOOFers aquí!” Carlos said, laughing… And he wasn’t kidding. There was a veritable village of tents set up around an outdoor kitchen shelter and seven other WWOOFers sharing the space.

Our tent overlooking the strawberry fields (forever…)
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It was quite a change after being totally on our own for the last week, and after living in the middle of nowhere with only one other couple for company for the last month. It was such a change that I hid in our tent for the first hour, trying to muster enough sociability to get out and join the throng. But, as Josh kept reminding me, it would be very good practice for living at camp, so eventually I faced the music (literally: there was constantly a guitar floating around) and let myself love and appreciate and be challenged by our time there. The crew included Jean and Judi, who were both from the South of France but hadn’t met until this farm; Roxane (French) and Robbie (Dutch), who went to university together in Belgium; Arlette and Faylin, recently graduated from high school in Illinois; and Alec, who majored in Yoga and Sitar at his Buddhist university in Colorado.

Every morning, we’d get up and breakfast together, then pick and sort strawberries until 1:30pm. After lunch, it was too deathly hot to be working in the sun, but also too hot to siesta in our tent, so we’d cool down by the little stream that ran by the house or walk to town for popsicles. The sun would finally relax around 8pm, so we’d work until around 10pm. When it was finally too dark to see if you were picking up strawberries or slugs, we’d go and make dinner. Jean, who had been a Boy Scout for years, was the self-appointed chef, leaving the rest of us with not much else to do but chop veggies, play cards, and cuddle with the two farm kittens while we waited for dinner.

Waiting for dinner with Chef Jean:
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It’s amazing we managed to fill the buckets, what with the amount of snacking we did while working!
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For Christmas, as previously mentioned, we decided to have a potluck where each WWOOFer would make a dish from their home country. On Christmas eve, all of us WWOOFers sat around the kitchen all morning, preparing our dishes for the potluck that night and watching 30 Rock – it felt just like Christmas holidays at home! Suddenly, Faylin and Arlette came running into the kitchen, demanding to know if we could all stop cooking for a bit. They then chucked scraps of paper in the air and sent us on a farm-wide scavenger hunt, which included shimmying across the river on a log bridge, braving the bee hives, and chasing down the host’s son who had a clue in his pocket. When we arrived back at our kitchen, panting and swimming in sweat after running around for an hour in +30C, there were juice boxes and cookies as prizes on the table!

The party started that night around 11pm, as we all carried our contribution to the feast out to our hosts’ backyard. Les français made crepes and tomato quiche, Robbie painstakingly crafted a triple-layer coffee-butter cake, the Americans made mac-n-cheese , and Josh and I concocted a glaze out of Patagonia honey and oranges for the Christmas ham. Carlos insisted that each of his kids try some of the “ham from Canada” (which, I believe, were some of the only English words he learnt). We then got to watch the kids open their presents, and they all got bathing suits for their Christmas trip to the beach… Where were the wool socks and new flannel pjs? 😛
Paola, our other host, passed out our gifts: huge jars of strawberry jam that we had made the day before. (And a month later, we’re still enjoying it!) The evening wound down with a Regina Spektor singalong around the fire – not exactly caroling, but close enough!

Jam-making with Paola:
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Carlos serving our international feast:
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Christmas jam sesh:
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Christmas day, Josh and I got up early, decorated the kitchen with streamers left over from my birthday, and left a tub of dulce de leche for everyone from Santa. Then, we walked into town and went to a little church we had seen the week before. It felt a bit like the Ukrainian church: all the kids (from adorable toddlers to awkwardly adorable preteens) put on a little pageant, and then at least three different “brothers and sisters” got up to “give a word” to the congregation. The people were so friendly (we got kissed and blessed too many times to count!), and it was wonderful to be in a church community again. No matter what language you speak or culture you find yourself in, there is a sense of home and of family within a church.

For lunch, we bought sandwiches at the YPF gas station, which was literally the only place open on Christmas. We ate our Christmas lunch of milanesa sandwiches sitting on the boulevard, and afterwards walked another 2h to el lago of Lago Puelo: a gorgeous, clear, turquoise blue lake surrounded by mountains. We lay on the beach all afternoon, and I ended up getting a tan for Christmas!!

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For dinner, we were planning to just go back to the gas station to get food (so classy, I know, but it was the only place in town that was open!), but on the walk back, we found a little restaurant on the side of the highway that reminded us of our favourite restaurant in Kenora – and it was open! The owner came over and explained that he had misplaced the menu, but he could still tell us what he had. So he started to recite: “Pizza, thirty pesos. Milanesa, twenty… No, twenty five pesos. Empanadas, twenty five pesos.” Then he looked at us expectantly. It was possibly the most adorable menu I’ve ever encountered!

We walked back home under the stars, in the still-warm night air. It was a very, very merry Christmas!