I had left Buenos Aires in the afternoon. Next morning just before 8 AM, we entered the Terminal del Sol, Mendoza’s bus terminal. I picked up my luggage and entered the building, which looked too empty for being in a main city. Dismissing such an early morning thought, I entered La Posta, the first coffee shop I saw in the building. Coffee was my main priority. On the wall was a clock showing that it was before 7 AM.
In such a way, I found that Argentina had exempted thirteen provinces of following the daylight saving time for the summer of 2008-9. Thus the country was for the first time divided in two time zones. The western and southern provinces kept a different time than the central and eastern ones.
Having arrived from Buenos Aires, the sound of the local dialect was clearly distinctive. At first the difference was difficult to pinpoint, but soon it became evident the local Spanish was closer to the one spoken in Bolivia.
I saw graffiti using the exclamation "ya!" which is never used in Buenos Aires in such a way but is very common on the Bolivian highlands. A restaurant was named "Yapa," which is the Aymara and Quechua verb "to add;" usually it is used in the food industry to imply a smaller second serving, especially in the form of the diminutive "yapita." The Argentinean "y" (in the beginning or end of a word) and "ll" are very different from the ones used in Spain and other Spanish speaking countries; it sounds like an English "sh." However, in Mendoza I heard the word "ayer" (yesterday) pronounced as "ay-ehr," again as in Bolivia.
Finally, I saw the wiphala flag (the colorful Bolivian Indigenous people flag) hanging from a balcony and the name Aymara being used by several establishments and I began suspecting that many of the locals migrated from the northern neighbor. Moreover, a very popular soft drink in Bolivia is called "Mendocina" (meaning "from Mendoza").
At first sight, the views were pleasant. Wide sidewalks flanked wider avenues; green trees separated between them. People sat drinking lazy coffees at sidewalk cafes. Attempting to take a few pictures (after all this is an IgoUgo hot destination) I almost fell into a deep ditch and got in such a way another deep insight into the town. Most of the sidewalks featured open, deep and unmarked ditches. Nobody could explain why they were not covered or at least marked. Beggars slept next to them, again with nobody noticing them.
The several internet cafes I met in downtown were part of a local chain, an intriguing sign tempted me inside one of them.
"How much costs the hour?"
"Right now, it is 4 ARP per fifty minutes."
The phrasing of the answer was as strange as the sign I had seen. After a few questions, I found they have a differential pricing scheme in which the more customers in the shop, the higher the connection price. Later I checked the price again and it was 2 ARP per thirty-two minutes. I never understood how they compute a long stay in which the number of customers in the shop changes.
Graffiti and Policemen
Other very obvious characteristics were the almost ubiquitous graffiti and policemen. The first were almost expected and standard, as if they have been copied from other Argentinean cities, or (who knows?) painted by members of the same unknown, undercover organizations. The last came in an awesome variety: walking, bicycle riding, motorized vehicle riding, and dog-walking policemen. I have not seen any other city – at least cities not in an openly declared state of emergency – with the exception of La Paz in Bolivia feature such a large number of police troops. Yet, all over the city were signs reading "+ control" that attempted to promote the enlargement of the police activities.
"I am safe here," I thought before seriously exploring the town.
Later, in the late afternoon of my first day in town, I already knew I’ll be writing about the police presence in downtown. I needed pictures.
Nonchalantly, I took out my smallest camera – I wanted to get a natural looking picture – and aimed it in a random direction of the Sarmiento walking street and waited for a policeman to appear. I assumed it wouldn’t take long.
Seconds later, a police on bicycle appeared in my findview. I let her get closer and then pressed a button in my camera. She passed next to me – trying hard to disguise she was looking at me - and then I took another picture from the back, since her vest was marked "Policia." Two clear pictures.
I was returning the camera to its place, when she stopped and left the bicycle under the nearest tree.
Seconds later, standing next to me, she asked:
"Are you a tourist?"
"Si," I said in my best Spanish.
"Where are you from?"
I answered, giving her my best smile.
"Do you want me to send you a copy of the picture?" I thought asking her. Instead, I kept smiling; she couldn’t use her weapons on me and ten seconds later she left without adding a word.
On Coins and Cigarettes
On my first night in town I crossed the central plaza three times; two in the evening, in my way to and from dinner, and one in the early morning when I was leaving for the Aconcagua Mountain.
The scenes I found in the area, including the nearby blocks were quite frightening. All of the sudden, there was no police patrolling and small groups of men and women occupied strategic positions at the street corners.
"Una monedita y un cigarillo, señor," a young man shouted after me. "A small coin and a cigarette please," he had said while I began walking faster.
By the next group a young woman said to me:
"Quince pesos, señor," fifteen pesos she had told without specifying what she was offering for that.
After that I made a point of avoiding the groups, but even that didn’t help.
"Una monedita y un cigarillo, señor," a shirtless young man shouted while walking after me. I began walking really fast now.
"No tenga miedo, solo una monedita," he added. "Don’t be afraid, just a small coin;" the fact that five or six of his fans were behind him didn’t make his statement very credible. I took one turn to the right, the next to the left and they were gone. The bus terminal with the bus to the Aconcagua was now in clear sight.
Could it been that the police didn’t know about these activities at the very center of the town? Could a complete stranger have witnessed what they haven’t seen? I doubted that. More control they wanted, thus a certain level of insecurity was to be displayed.