"Discover Argentina (or 6 Brits in San Rafael!)" NeilnSue's Profile
Sometimes you just know something is going to be perfect. From the first moment you set your eyes on it you know that whatever happens you will always remember that instant and things will only get better. I remember having it when my daughter was born. As I saw her face for the first time, all screwed up and blue, I knew that she would always have my heart, that we would be best friends, she would be kind caring and gentle and time together would be a joy. I never got it with my lad.
I got it again last week. I was about 8000 miles away sat in a small office in a town called San Rafael in the Mendoza region of Argentina. I had just signed a document that said along with my wife I owned a 75 acre Ecological finca or farm. All we had to do afterwards was phone home and tell Sue’s Mum and Dad and our two children that we had a new home and get packing. We had finally made the break! As we stumbled out of the Escrabano’s office and nipped over the road to the pub for celebratory beers at 40 pence a pint we couldn’t help giggling and pinching ourselves, how on earth had we managed to get this far?
I blame the Burton Mail for the current state of affairs. Sure I could go further back and mention a dark night in 1967 when a young, naive lass was told that there was no way she could get pregnant in a tent on a slope. But then she was Scottish and unused to the wiles of a desperate Essex lad. Suffice to say 9 months later I appeared; it was within wedlock so the name I aspired to for 27 years wasn’t totally legitimate. But back to the paper. It had been a time of desperation for me! It was 1995 I was approaching my 27th Christmas and no sign of anyone remotely likely to make my mother smile; I decided to place an ad in the lonely hearts section of the Burton Mail.
I was reasonably honest with my ad, young lad, own home and car, almost house trained and looking to meet anyone. Breathing was good but would settle for still warm. I awaited developments! A few short weeks later with trembling fingers I made a call to “Sue”. We had a brief but pleasant chat on the phone and agreed to meet that Friday, it was Tuesday. That same night I was concentrating deeply on performing the only two tasks that we chaps can perform simultaneously with any success, reading the paper whilst using the toilet, when the phone went. With pants and loo roll flying I raced to the phone to be greeted with the husky and ever so eagerly received words…”I’m not desperate but what are you doing tonight?” I was in!
Hastily I dressed and headed to the Chesterfield Arms. Obviously on my way I pictured my Angel. She would be 6 foot, voluptuous, dusky skinned with silky dark hair and a Porsche. We met in the car park; she was a nurse, brilliant! As we left the pub that night I remember punching the air. I’m not quite sure whether it was because I got that feeling again or the fact I’d spent all night in a pub and only drunk 2 pints so obviously wasn’t an alcoholic! We met that Friday at the pictures. After the film she muttered those magic words, “if I take my shoes off and we run we should make last orders!” As I struggled to keep up with her across the car park, watching her stocking feet and nurses cape billowing behind her like Batman on his most essential mission I knew I was sold. We married within 4 months.
Over the next few years we had kids and relaxed into married life. Ok like everyone else we were kind of squeezed into it on occasions, shoe horned at other times and dived in enthusiastically most of the time. But something always stuck, we had to leave the UK. We wanted to live somewhere that had space for the kids and a good lifestyle for us all. We both felt that things were getting far too expensive in the UK and we couldn’t let the kids out of the house on their own. Basically we wanted our lives back and that most precious of things, time.
Only people who are desperately searching know how difficult it is to find the right spot. You annoy your friends by constantly talking about your plans to “poke off” to such an extent that they openly yawn every time you try to bring the subject up and tell you to “just bugger off then!”. It can be a difficult time. You spend hours reading books and trawling the internet, becoming pale and boring, or was that before? But it pays off! 4 weeks ago I felt that feeling again. I was sat in front of the computer looking at my idea of paradise. 75 acres of land in Argentina, with a vineyard, 300000 litre pool, 6000 eucalyptus trees, river frontage and 2 houses one built by a German more than 110 years ago oh and I almost forgot, an aging caretaker called Gonzalez, but more about him later!
I called Sue over for a look and her reaction was exactly the same, it had everything we’d been looking for, space, productivity, good weather, stunning scenery and it wasn’t the UK! We could both feel the excitement rising! “I’m not going to America!” What? “I’m not going to America. They’re funny buggers over there and that’s final!” ZZZiiippp! It really was like Clint Eastwood walking into a bar in some bad western. Enter Brian, Sue’s Dad. With one swift stroke he’d written off probably the best part of half a billion people (not including the Caribbean) and 4 of the ten largest countries in the known world. Sue’s Dad, like her Mum is lovely. They have helped us both out an enormous amount for which we are both eternally grateful. However, when the children came along it became swiftly apparent that where the Grandchildren went the Grandparents would surely follow or the heavens would verily split asunder! This did complicate things slightly i.e. Australia- good for nurses and aircraft engineer’s bad for GP’s (Grandparents), ditto New Zealand. India, where I had spent some time as a child, good for a look, bad for GP’s as it was a bit hot, the food was funny and what was all that about cows in the street. I think pretty much all of Asia had been ruled out on the basis of a few dodgy meals in Derby and as for Greece, didn’t men there wear white tights and shoe’s with pom pom’s now that was a bit suss! There was a bit of a list!
Suffice to say one of Norma’s family meetings ensued! It was agreed that everyone would keep an open mind although everyone’s mind without exception was already open, and that no one would put obstacles in the way of any location as this had never previously occurred. So that was all right then! We were also to take with a pinch of salt any loud or vocal objections, and if anyone went into a bit of a monk they didn’t really mean it and would probably snap out of it before we left. I never agreed to that one.
So following on from the confab I got the phone number off the web site and once again with shaky fingers (perhaps alcohol is a problem) dialled a number in Florida. The phone was picked up eventually by a very irate sounding American. “What!” Oh dear, it was a bit of a start but he explained he was stuck in a traffic jam in Florida and would call back later (now that was another reason for leaving the UK). The bugger never did, but one of the things we were to learn about Byron was that as trustworthy as he defiantly is (more on that later, how to own a Finca with no money down!) as funny as he is, as genuine as he is he sure ain’t organised! So finally the next day I managed to track him down. Yes the Finca was still for sale, yes he would be in Argentina soon, yes we could come and see it, when did we fancy?
“Well its Wednesday now, we could catch a flight tomorrow and be there by Friday.” “Ok” says he “I’ll be there Friday myself. Call my partner Tito when you get there.”
“Does Tito speak English?”
“Not really, he speaks Spanish and Welsh. I’ll email you his number later.”
We were now in the hands of an American who would be in transit himself and a Spanish speaking Taff whose number we didn’t even have yet! Should be a laugh.
So where to start! First off we had to find out where the bloody hell San Rafael was, believe me “Argentina” didn’t narrow it down much! It turned out to be a town of 100,000 people in the region of Mendoza which is on the Western side of Argentina in line with Santiago in Chile. Mendoza like Burton on Trent, our home town, is world renowned for it’s alcohol in this case wine. I just hoped that unlike Burton on Trent it didn’t smell of Marmite most days! We popped on to lastminite.com and managed to get 2 tickets from Birmingham for one o’clock the next day. 7 hour stop over in Charles De Gaulle Airport and then about a 13 hour flight to Buenos Aires. Byron had mentioned he could book us an overnight bus from BA (as us Argentines call Buenos Aires) which would serve a meal, had a top deck with free bar (Ohh!) and seats that lay flat. Brilliant. We just had to survive 7 hours in France!
This whole process had probably taken 6 hours. I rang Byron’s number to give him our travel details so he could arrange the bus. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeep. There is something enormously worrying about that noise. Especially when you’ve just shelled out £1300 for 2 airline tickets and this noise is telling you that the office phone of the guy you’re travelling 6000 miles to meet has been disconnected. There was a certain amount of twitch at this time. British ingenuity to the rescue! “We’ll have a cuppa tea and try again later, he might just be out.” Beeeeeeep. He was and the “cuppa tea” made bugger all in the way of difference. I sent him an email with all the details and crossed everything.
Throughout British history you read about these kinds of episodes. Nelson, Drake, Cook and whoever was up the creek without a paddle. Things looked very dire and it was fifty fifty as to what to do next! Did they push forward at whatever costs, or take the easy option! Well now you can add the name of “Rushen” to that list. We did exactly the same as all off them. Grabbed those hairy spherical objects, held our noses…..and bloody well jumped!
Still not having heard from Byron, Brian dropped us off at Birmingham the next morning. I bumped into a mate of mine as we boarded the Flybe plane (I worked for them in the dim and distant past) this impressed the stewardess so much that she upgraded us to Business Class! Nice lady, she obviously hadn’t been informed that I’d buggered off without paying my bond! But the flight was lovely. Can’t fail to recommend them enough!! An omen for the rest of the trip we thought! Mmmmmm.
We got off in Paris and onto the transfer bus. Weather was about 27 C hot and sweaty. The bus was packed, you know what it’s like, unwashed Gallic armpits right by your nose, sweaty backs and desperate for a pee, when one young lady traveller decided she’d had enough of her in-flight refreshments and offered them around. They were offered over quite a number of shoes and we were still a way from the terminal building. Was this the omen we had been waiting for! Sue being the travelling nurse stepped in. The last time Sue stepped in to assist with a travel emergency she turned a very large, packed aircraft, 2 hours nearer to Mexico than it had been 2 hours previously, back to Manchester. Prior to landing we had to dump about 20 tonnes of fuel. Then the airline had to taxi new crew up from Gatwick. Whenever I hear those words “is there a medic on board” I will usually look for something very heavy and intimidating. Anyway, it didn’t appear that the young lady was about to croak it, so Miss Nightingale allowed us into the terminal.
Ahhh Gay Paris! Where else can you pay £11 for 2 chocolate bars and 2 small bottles of water and they still look at you like you’re stuck to their shoe. If I’d just ripped someone off to that extent I’d be smirking like buggery at them then laugh my socks off at their backs! We urgently needed some Argentinean Pesos so went to the only Bureaux de change in the place to find it very shut, again with that annoying air of Gallic indifference. We settled for the wait.
About an hour or so before departure I decided to check my email. I was hoping to raise Byron from the dead, or at least try and find out if he was heading towards Argentina or had just gone bankrupt and closed the office. Yes!! There was an email waiting! I swiftly read the contents. Yup, the omen had been the lass chucking on everyone’s shoes! Byron had forgotten that it was holiday time in Argentina. Not only this but they had had excellent snow in Las Lenas (!?). Basically what this meant was there were no seats on the buses for a week as everyone in BA ( keep up) had decided to bugger off to Las Lenas skiing. Those that couldn’t get the bus had filled up the one daily flight from BA to San Rafael for a week and the really unlucky one’s had now or were in the process of filling all seats from BA to Mendoza. Oh and if that wasn’t bad enough there were now no hotel rooms left in San Rafael! At about this time a tinny voice called us all like an Imam to enter the Air France Mosque which would transport us like an Arabian carpet to Buenos Aires. I remember thinking “oh bollocks!” I wrote a quick reply along the lines of “don’t worry we’ll sort ourselves out when we get there” yeah right! Found Sue, told her the good news and got onboard. We had 13 hours to come up with a solution. We got pissed.
It’s surprising what a good bit of kip can do for the old thought process. That and a few bottles of “airline red!” We’d had a bit of a look at the map and it was pretty much a straight run from Buenos Aires to San Rafael and according to our map it was only 7 inches. So the plan was thus: having had an alcohol coma induced upon us over the last 13 hours we should be able to travel most if not all of the 7 inches that day. We would email Byron on our arrival to let him know we were hiring a car and set off into the hinterland. Bargain. At some stage on our journey we would check our email, contact Byron and all be in bed in time for tea! Easy!
Having filled out the Argentine immigration card and heard various stories about Argentine death squads in the 70’s it was with some trepidation that we handed our passports over at immigration control. As we had no idea where we were staying we’d just put San Rafael as the name of our hotel. We needn’t have worried. Unlike their analy retentive North American cousins they couldn’t have given a monkeys and waved us straight through. It must have been the first time that Sue wasn’t even asked what she had just sat on in her passport photo. All we needed to do now was pick the bags up, get some money, a hire car and we were off!
“No Gringo, cash only.” Ok he didn’t say Gringo but it felt like it. We had no Pesos because of the bloody French and now I was being told that I couldn’t use a credit card to change money. It was only a peso a pee and I couldn’t even do that. We had a quick rummage and came up with £200 between us which we quickly changed. On previous form £200 usually lasts about a day and a half when we’re travelling, if alcohols involved it lasts a considerably shorter time, this did not look good! We grabbed our bags and left the building looking for a hire car. First stop Avis. “Sorry no cars available.” Fortunately the nice chaps at Hertz sorted us out and even managed to point us in the direction of a mobile phone rental company. We were off! We couldn’t find a web portal and I had been dumb enough not to take Tito’s number down in Paris so we just had to set off and go for it. Which we did.
We did the usual tourist thing and got lost a couple of times before finally finding ourselves on a very rough, bumpy road heading in our direction. It was a bloody nightmare. Potholes the size of the Grand Canyon, roadwork’s and dust, lots and lots of dust not to mention all the bloody Salsa music on the radio! Eventually we got on the proper road (I had taken a duff turn in BA) and conditions were much better we’d even found a decent radio station. We pushed our seats back, opened the Benson’s and cruised.
What a joy driving in Argentina is. Unleaded petrol was about 30 pence a litre and the roads! We went for a period of about 2 hours at one stage without seeing another car or turning a corner! Not even a curve let alone a corner. The horizon went on and on forever it was incredible. They’ve got some cows mind! After about 9 hours 73 fags and quite a few pit stops we arrived in the Mendoza region to be greeted by our first police road block.
I think it stems from my days as a youth when I was once stopped on my Vespa by PC Waterfall in Ruskington, 18 years ago! Bloody hell am I that old? I was a bit remiss and had neglected a few things which PC Waterfall kindly began to catalogue. “No tax, fraudulent use of tax, no insurance, no front mudguard etc. Since that time I always feel as though I’m doing something wrong whenever I see a Policeman, even if I’m not. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is there was, as there always is, a certain degree of *** pucker as we approached the said road block.
I needn’t have worried. Using my vast knowledge of Spanish we were able to negotiate the first part of the road block no problem. It’s amazing where a very dense look a smile and “no hablo espanol” will get you. Or so we thought. Skilfully past the first cop when another one appeared. “No hablo espanol.” “Dat ees ok I am eyereesh. Me naame ees Lynch.” At which point he proceeded to get his credit cards out and prove that he was in fact a very Argentine Irish Mr Lynch. He then said something about apples and oranges. I thought he was offering us some and said I liked them very much and would love some. A look of horror crossed his face and we were quickly moved on to cop number 3 who proceeded to search the car……..for fruit! Moral of the story don’t get smart, repeat after me “no hablo espanol!” Mendoza is an area renowned for its agriculture and obviously they didn’t want anyone bringing in naff stuff. Lesson learnt. Eventually with three very smart salutes, lots of smiles and goodbyes we were allowed on our way.
By the time we left the road block it was getting on for 8 in the evening. We’d been travelling about 24 hours smoked to many fags and were starting to fade so we decided to stop at the next town, General Alvear. Who he is I don’t know but at that point I was bloody glad he’d decided to build where he had. We found a nice little hotel and checked in. Obviously though that little drive had worked up a bit of a thirst so we dumped our bags and decided to get acquainted with the local brew. Andes. Not quite Marstons Pedigree but boy were we ready for it. We slid our way through a couple of pints and ordered a couple more. “cerveza per favour.” We had the map out on the table and were just nattering about our day when a voice from the next table piped up. “Are you English?” We’d sat next to a farmer. Not just your normal farmer but a manager of 4 “Campos” all were beef, some to fatten some for calving and some for some other stuff I’m sure. The smallest was over 1000 Hectares and the largest over 4000 hectares, that’s a serious amount of land. Wales probably fits into it 7 times and that’s the “Big Country.” Ok I’m telling porkies but it was bloody big. Did it make him happy though? Did it buggery! We’d just flown 6000 miles then driven 1000 kilometres to sit next to a grumpy old git of an Argentine farmer called Alex Smith (where did he get that bloody name from) who proceeded to tell us that his country was pants and he was going to bugger off to Chile at the first opportunity. Thanks. Apparently discipline was lacking in the young, schooling was atrocious, the system didn’t work and we were better off going back home. We chatted politely and bought him a beer but after he’d gone Sue told me she was a young farmer once and they were all miserable buggers and not to listen to a word that they said as it was all wank. Apparently the parties were good though. I didn’t ask. One for the road and it was time for bed.
We surfaced the next morning to a damp and foggy day. There was a bit of a chill in the air and the Andes mountain’s were nowhere in site. We were just about to become acquainted with Argentine showers. Basically the bathroom has a hole in the floor and no shower curtain. Set the shower to stun, get in and feel everything wash away, including the loo roll. The towels got wet, the loo got wet and a small corner of the bedroom resembled Branston water park. A lesson learnt! Always make sure any uses of said loo roll are carried out before the shower and leave the towel outside. We finished our ablutions, mopped the floor and headed down for breakfast. Strong coffee and a couple of croissant style pastries later we were ready to continue our journey. It was time to grab “la cuenta, per favour,” the bill to you. Our helpful concierge presented us with a bill for 60 pesos. That’s about £13. We’d had a double room for the night, 3 litres of beer (about 6 pints) coffee and croissant! Unbelievable! We’d been seriously ripped off, although we didn’t know it at the time. Two and a half weeks later on our way back we were charged £7 for a nicer room near Buenos Aires. We said our goodbyes and jumped into the motor to travel the last 80 kilometres to San Rafael. I’d tried to email Byron from the hotel but hadn’t managed to get on to hotmail. We were still travelling blind.
The landscape was a lot more interesting by now, more arid and “bumpier”, there were even corners in the road. We started passing acres and acres of vineyard, it was still foggy so we couldn’t see much but we were both getting very, very excited. The kilometres slowly counted themselves down until we crossed the Rio Atuel and slowly came upon San Rafael. It was very remenisant of a small US town in the 50’s or 60’s. Very wide pot holed streets, very old pick up trucks and just an air of relaxed “time” about the place. As we got nearer to the centre it became more modern and could almost have been a high street in the UK except it was cleaner and the sun was starting to shine. Internet café’s seemed to be the most popular type of store and there literally was one on every corner. We parked up and had a wander. Obviously the priority was to contact Byron so we popped into a café and blasted him an email. At the same time I picked up Tito’s number and gave him a call. How to describe a conversation between an Argentinean Welsh speaker and a typically ignorant and illiterate Brit. It was interesting! As a typical travelling Brit I know enough of most languages to order beers, chips, get a room for the night and upset 97% of the local populace. I once had a garage full of Italians in stitches when I asked for a “recipe” instead of a “receipt” after filling up. This time was no different, though with Tito’s Gallic background it’s almost impossible to offend him. It was about lunch time so we decided to head for some trough, on the way in I’d spotted some shops with huge fire’s on the go so we decided to give one a go.
What can I say? We pointed at some nice looking chicken on the Barbie, ordered a large beer each (in this area our Spanish is very proficient) and were herded into a back room with an Argentinean version of MTV pumping out on the telly. There’s not much to be said for Salsa Rap! A few minutes later our grinning host came proudly back bearing two plates of delicious chicken. Well that’s what we’d been expecting. What he actually came back with were two huge sausage type things in bread. Neil meet Chorizo, Chorizo- Neil. We were on the whole impressed with the food out there except one particular incident but more on that later! Having finished trough and slid a couple of beer’s down we decided that rather than hang around we’d head towards the mountains for a look, and wait for Byron’s call.
We didn’t have long to wait. Just leaving the outskirts and the phone went.
“Where are you?”
“In San Rafael”
“Umm I don’t know” and so it went! Fortunately we had spotted a military museum so agreed to meet there.
It wasn’t that we’d seen anything about the Falkland Islands or the Malvinas Islands as the locals call them (we would later) but I think we both felt slightly uneasy as two Brits loitering outside a military establishment so were very glad when Byron arrived. Introductions were made and off we went. We were off to see the Finca!
I can’t describe the feelings at that time. The excitement was intense. We couldn’t stop grinning but there was also a lot of apprehension. We’d travelled 6000 miles to look at a farm. What happened if we didn’t like it? What if it needed too much work? What if it was in an alcohol free area! The journey to the Finca took 20 minutes through wooded avenues and acres and acres of vineyard. Through Salta De Las Rosas and right at the school sign. So much nicer than the directions to a camp sight we looked at in France. “Turn right at the scrap yard.” Needless to say that one was consigned to the bin!
Turning off the road we drove down a dirt track. Vineyards on the right and very poor looking shacks on the left. I felt my heart dropping. I knew it was going to be exactly the right property in exactly the wrong area. We carried on following Byron’s battered Renault 12. Round a corner and half a mile on and he pulled onto a small bridge over an irrigation canal, got out and unlocked the gate. We drove through.
Sitting here writing now and I’m just grinning. Just taking time to remember that first time we saw home brings it all back. Imagine finding a home that’s better than you could ever imagine and you wouldn’t come close. Everything you could wish for was right there in front of us, it was actually more than either of us had dared to consider, as they say, even in our wildest dreams, and believe me I’ve had some wild dreams! Oh those red swim suits! I wouldn’t class it as a spiritual moment because they’re best with a little water after a good meal, it far surpassed that! We were crossing a small bridge over an irrigation canal looking at two houses nestled in trees. The house on the left was single story, large double doors in the middle. The roof beams extended out over a concrete surround. The second house was chalet style with a steep sloping roof, a small balcony and a large set of double doors. The land around the houses was just full of trees. It was just perfect. We got out of the car and Byron led us round the back of the main house. It was almost like a little courtyard. A tree grew from a raised bed made of local stone and a small brick pathway wandered towards another small canal and crossed it with a little wooden bridge. On the other side of the bridge was a bread oven and bar-b-que, and tree’s lots and lots of trees. Masses of the buggers. We went inside
The house had originally been built by a German in the 1890’s. Apparently he was a bit of a character who wore lederhosen, drank to much gin and was always being rescued from the irrigation canals by the local kids who would pop the tired and emotional chap in bed when standing up became a bit of a problem. We would have to see if we could rise to that challenge. Prior to Byron buying the place it was owned by 3 brothers. Family being family are the same all over the world. Said brothers had a slight tiff which ended up with someone’s donkey shuffling off this mortal coil as a result of a fixation with gun barrels, i.e. he was looking into one when it went off. Following on from the donkey “swimming with the fishes” it was decided in a forthright manner to sell the property post haste. They didn’t want the goats getting involved! One of the brothers (who we would later meet) knew a Dutch guy called Ernesto (who we would also meet) who knew Byron. A deal was done and Byron bought the finca off the 3 brothers. The donkey, sadly, remained morto but the goats were ok…..for a while.
Anyway back to the entry! As soon as you stepped into the house you could see that a lot of love, care and attention had been taken on every detail. It had that feel about it we had to buy it.
And buy it we did. It feels good to live the dream. To think I want it, I'm going to have it.
Hopefully I'll sit down sometime and write some more about our new life....even the rest of that first journey. About Gonzalez horse who thinks it's a dog, and Ernesto's wine, Mickeys hat and Bones the dog. Not to mention the fried entrails. But thats a job for winter, around the fire, with a glass of my own wine in my hand.
If you come by our way, be sure to drop in. There's always a welcome at "Hundred Acre Wood".
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