Pink Fountains, Flying Pigs, Ernesto Cardenal and a new Pope – Mendoza notebook

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There are two fountains in Mendoza’s gritty central Plaza Independencia. The larger one, in the center of the square, features carefully choreographed cascades set before a wide sculpture marking key moments in the city’s post-Columbian history. The other, a smaller and narrower version facing the city’s Sarmiento pedestrian street, shoots Barbie pink-colored water about six feet into the overcast sky before it settles into a pool of malbec red.

Ernesto Cardenal in Mendoza
Ernesto Cardenal in Mendoza

A few hundred meters away, on Sarmiento, another smaller fountain was also spurting rosé. At its murky bottom of wild cherry red, resting among drowned leaves and a few twigs, was a small poster announcing that the internationally respected Nicaraguan poet and activist priest Ernesto Cardenal would be giving a recital on Friday in nearby Cruz Godoy. A noted liberation theologian, Cardenal is best known for the peasant art community he founded on Lake Nicaragua’s rustic Solentiname Archipelago where he lived for more than a decade. After the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, Cardenal served as Minister of Culture for eight years under the Sandinistas, a party he has since left. During a visit to Nicaragua in 1983, Pope John Paul II famously scolded Cardenal on Managua’s airport runway for working with the Sandinistas. Cardenal was invited to Cruz Godoy by the municipal government to participate in the official inauguration of a new community library.

In an email received a few weeks ago, a friend asked me to describe a typical day on my Round The World journey. The submerged Cardenal poster reminded me of her email (she too was a fan of Cardenal’s work), and served as a form of divine intervention compelling me to happily oblige with her request. This disjointed journal, written after a largely sleepless night and a long deliberate day, is as atypically typical as it gets.

I arrived in Mendoza this morning at just after eight, groggy from a 19-hour bus ride from Bariloche, some 1,100 kilometers to the north. At some point during that long restless ride, a gathering of Catholic cardinals in Vatican City selected an Argentine, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the new pope. Bergoglio, who was the archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998, is the first Jesuit and first Latin American to head the Catholic Church. With church doctrine he’s considered very conservative, but has given voice to the faceless poor in Latin America, and is the first pope to take the name Francis, calling to mind the champion of the poor, Francis of Assisi. I came across a few references to accusations that he worked with the military during Argentina’s dark Dirty War period when more than 30,000 people were killed by the military dictatorship. No charges have stuck. Most media accounts focus on his austere lifestyle.

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Images of Bergoglio are splashed on the front pages of nearly every newspaper in every kiosk. While staring at one, I wonder if Cardenal and Bergoglio have ever met. Near one stack of papers hangs the latest issue of the parody publication, Barcelona, whose cover features a portrait of Hugo Chavez ‘shopped onto the body of Jim Morrison.

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My room isn’t in a hotel. It’s one of several in a private home which the hosts rent to travelers or students. One guest in Laura, a Spanish language student from Bern, Switzerland, who has been here on and off since August. My room is cozy, includes a private bathroom, breakfast and access to a small fenced-in garden, for about 35 USD a night. The wifi signal isn’t great, which is why I’m typing this at a restaurant after dinner.

24-hour strike by health care workers in Mendoza
24-hour strike by health care workers in Mendoza

Before I discovered the fountains awash with malbec, I spent a few minutes watching a march by health care workers protesting the government’s latest wage increase offer. Not impressed, they called a 24-hour general strike. Ninety percent of the union’s members, one marcher tells me, are supporting the walkout. About 1,000 people took part in the march that stretched more than three blocks. Enthusiastic drummers are located at the front, middle and back sections of the gathering. A few marchers signal that they don’t want their picture taken, but most smile in my direction, as do a pair of policemen riding by on bicycles.

I took about 120 photos today. The first was of this stencil of a pair of flying pigs. Many of Mendoza’s streets are lined with open drainage ditches. I nearly fall into one after taking the pig picture.

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I spent about an hour exploring excursion options for the next few days before settling on a three winery tour for tomorrow, which includes tastings and lunch. I chose that particular one because the others I heard about only included stops at two wineries.

I had salmon-stuffed ravioli in a light tomato sauce for lunch, along with a glass of the house malbec. The waitress explained that Mendoza recently held its annual harvest festival, thus the red water in the city fountains. She couldn’t tell me when the wine would turn back into water.

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